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The Star Online: World Updates

Obama warns divided Congress that he will act alone

Posted: 28 Jan 2014 09:15 PM PST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama vowed on Tuesday to bypass a divided Congress and take action on his own to bolster America's middle class in a State of the Union address that he used to try to breathe new life into his second term after a troubled year.

Standing in the House of Representatives chamber before lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and VIP guests, Obama declared his independence from Congress by unveiling a series of executive orders and decisions - moves likely to inflame already tense relations between the Democratic president and Republicans.

While his rhetoric was high flying, Obama's actions were relatively modest, collectively amounting to an outpouring of frustration at the pace of legislative action with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and able to slow the president's agenda.

"I'm eager to work with all of you," Obama told the lawmakers gathered for the annual speech. "But America does not stand still - and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do."

Obama's orders included a wage hike for federal contract workers, creation of a "starter savings account" to help millions of people save for retirement, and plans to establish new fuel efficiency standards for trucks.

He said he was driven to act by the widening gap between rich and poor and the fact that while the stock market has soared, average wages have barely budged.

"Inequality has deepened," Obama said. "Upward mobility has stalled. The cold hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone get ahead. And too many still aren't working at all."


In an emotional, flag-waving finish to his speech, Obama drew a standing ovation from people of all political stripes by saluting the heroism of Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg. The Army Ranger survived a roadside blast in Afghanistan and has recovered to the point where he attended the speech, seated next to first lady Michelle Obama.

"Like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit," Obama said.

In a nod to bipartisanship, Obama drew applause with a brief tribute to John Boehner, "the son of a barkeeper" who rose to become speaker of the House of Representatives and the top Republican in Congress. Boehner gave Obama a thumbs-up.

Obama's political objective in the address was to create a narrative for Democrats to use as they seek to head off Republicans eager to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats in November elections and build on their majority in the House.

The party in control of the White House typically loses seats in these so-called mid-term elections, but Democrats feel they stand a chance of limiting their losses or even making some gains.

To that end, Obama drew loud applause by underscoring in particular the economic plight of women, who he noted make up about half the U.S. workforce but still earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Women voters helped re-elect Obama in 2012.

"This year, let's all come together - Congress, the White House and businesses from Wall Street to Main Street - to give every woman the opportunity she deserves, because I firmly believe when women succeed, America succeeds," he said.

Obama's governing strategy means he has scaled back ambitions for large legislative actions and wants to focus more on smaller-scale initiatives that can reduce income inequality and create more opportunities for middle-class workers.

The wage hike for federal contract workers to $10.10 per hour, for example, will mean a pay raise for only about 560,000 federal contract workers.

That's only a tiny fraction of the number who would see bigger paychecks under stalled legislation to increase the minimum wage.

Some 3.6 million workers were paid the federal minimum wage in 2012. By comparison, only 560,000 are employed as federal contractors for $12 an hour or less, according to the think tank Demos. And Obama's executive order only affects new and renewed contracts.

Obama spent a sizable part of his speech hammering away at issues that have long been debated but remain stalled, like closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

He renewed an appeal for Congress to give him the authority to speedily negotiate international trade agreements, a proposal held up by Democratic opposition.

And on one of his biggest priorities, immigration reform, Obama urged Congress to work together on an overhaul. He tempered his criticism of Republicans who have held up the legislation, with signs of possible progress emerging in recent days among House Republicans.

Obama stopped short of taking a step that immigration reform advocates have called on him to take. He did not take executive action to freeze the deportations of parents of children brought to the United States illegally.

"Let's get immigration reform done this year," he said.


On healthcare, the issue that rocked his presidency and caused many Americans to lose confidence in him, Obama defended the overhaul law he signed in 2010 but did not dwell on it, urging Americans to sign up for medical insurance coverage by a March 31 deadline.

"I don't expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law," Obama said. "But I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles."

He said nothing about whether he would approve the long-delayed Keystone XL Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline that environmentalists oppose.

Instead, Obama spoke passionately about the need to tackle climate change, a statement that could foreshadow more executive actions to reduce carbon emissions this year.

Obama said, "The shift to a cleaner energy economy won't happen overnight, and it will require some tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact."

Republicans clambered for some of the same rhetorical ground as Obama in pledging to narrow the gap between rich and poor but staked out a different vision for doing so.

U.S. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the House Republican Caucus, said in her party's official response to Obama's speech that Republicans want to rely on free markets and trust people to make their own decisions, not have the government make decisions for them.

"The president talks a lot about income inequality, but the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality," she said, videotaped seated on a couch in a living room setting.

With three years left in office, Obama is trying to recover from a difficult past year in office, when immigration and gun control legislation failed to advance in Congress and the rollout of the key provisions of his healthcare law stumbled.

Polls reflect a dissatisfied and gloomy country. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday showed 68 percent of Americans saying the country is either stagnant or worse off since Obama took office. People used words like "divided," "troubled" and "deteriorating" to describe the state of the country, the poll showed.

Obama dwelled mostly on domestic issues in his hour-long address, but warned Congress he would veto any effort to increase economic sanctions on Iran as he tries to reach a comprehensive deal with Tehran to ensure it does not obtain a nuclear weapons capability.

A CNN poll found that 44 percent of respondents viewed Obama's address very positively while 32 percent felt somewhat positively about it and 22 percent were negative toward it.

Obama will talk up the economic themes from the speech in a two-day road trip starting on Wednesday that will include stops in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Roberta Rampton, Susan Cornwell, Mark Felsenthal, Margaret Chadbourn, Alina Selyukh, Emily Stephenson and Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Will Dunham)

Obama urges Guantanamo closure this year, shift from 'permanent war footing'

Posted: 28 Jan 2014 09:10 PM PST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama told Americans on Tuesday that 2014 should be the year to finally close the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay as the United States winds down its military role in Afghanistan and shifts away from a "permanent war footing."

In his annual State of the Union address, Obama renewed his old vow - dating back to the start of his presidency five years ago - to shut the internationally condemned jail at the U.S. Naval Base in Cuba, and he called on Congress for further action to help him do so.

"This needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay," Obama said. "Because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals and setting an example for the rest of the world."

Obama stopped short of offering any new prescriptions on how he intends to empty Guantanamo of its remaining 155 prisoners. They were rounded up overseas after the September 11, 2001, attacks and have been held without trial ever since.

But after U.S. lawmakers made it easier late last year to transfer Guantanamo inmates to their home countries, Obama is in a better position than before to gradually reduce the detainee population. But he said Congress needed to give him further flexibility.

The effort to close Guantanamo is a critical part of Obama's broader drive to roll back some of the most controversial aspects of the global fight against Islamist militants as he presses ahead with plans to formally end the long, unpopular war in Afghanistan by the end of the year.

Obama has already sought to narrow the scope of the deadly U.S. drone campaign against al Qaeda and its allies, and recently announced reforms in surveillance activities triggered by former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden's revelations.

"Even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks - through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners - America must move off a permanent war footing," Obama said.


Opened by President George W. Bush in 2002, Guantanamo became a symbol of the excesses of his administration's "war on terror" interrogation and detention practices.

Obama failed to meet his promise to close the prison within a year of taking office in early 2009, and although he has since

recommitted to his pledge, he was reluctant until now to set a new time frame for achieving it.

His renewed promise followed congressional passage in December of a broader defence spending bill that loosened some restrictions on Obama's ability to send more of the Guantanamo detainees home.

Despite that, he still faces major obstacles to shutting Guantanamo. Lawmakers refused to budge on a ban on bringing Guantanamo prisoners to the U.S. mainland.

On top of that, complications remain with Yemen, where U.S. officials fear released prisoners might join up with an active al Qaeda branch. Yemen's government also has yet to build a long-promised detention centre for any prisoners sent home.

Obama also used his speech to reassure a war-weary American public that the U.S. military was on track to withdraw from Afghanistan after more than a decade of war there.

"We will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America's longest war will finally be over," he said.

He also sent a thinly veiled message to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is locked in a test of wills with Washington over efforts to reach a long-term security pact that would enable a small contingent of U.S. forces to remain in the country beyond 2014.

The White House has warned that it will resort to a "zero option," pulling out all U.S. forces at the end of the year unless he signs a security deal soon.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Obama takes tough line against Iran sanctions to Congress

Posted: 28 Jan 2014 08:55 PM PST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama took his hard line against new sanctions over Iran's nuclear program directly to U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday by pledging in his annual State of the Union address to veto any legislation that threatens talks with Tehran.

Obama said an interim agreement seeking to curb Iran's nuclear program was already taking effect, and the ongoing diplomacy was important for U.S. safety.

"The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it," Obama said in his speech in the House of Representatives chamber.

"For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed," he said.

He reassured Israel, a U.S. ally that is extremely wary of Iran's nuclear program, referring to "a Jewish state that knows America will always be at their side." He added that all options - including the military option - were on the table for keeping Iran from getting a nuclear weapon if need be.

Tehran rejects allegations that it is seeking the capability to produce nuclear arms, insisting its atomic ambitions are limited to peaceful purposes such as the generation of electricity.

Fifty-nine of the 100 U.S. senators, including 16 of Obama's fellow Democrats, co-sponsored a bill that would impose new restrictions on Iran if talks on a permanent deal falter.

But Iran has warned it will walk away from negotiations on its nuclear program - raising the risk of conflict in the Middle East - if the bill becomes law. The measure is now stalled in the Senate amid expectations the chamber's Democratic leaders will not allow a vote.

Supporters insist the bill would help hold push Iran during the negotiations. "The Menendez-Kirk bill is an insurance policy against Iran's development of nuclear weapons and ensures a process for the peaceful dismantlement of Iran's nuclear infrastructure," Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk said in a statement after Obama's speech.

Obama said U.S. diplomacy "backed by pressure" had rolled back Iran's nuclear program for the first time in a decade, as negotiators from six world powers hold talks with Iran.

"These negotiations will be difficult. They may not succeed," he said, adding his administration was "clear-eyed" about Iran's backing for terrorist organizations and mistrust "that cannot be washed away" between Washington and Tehran.

"If John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan could negotiate with the Soviet Union, then surely a strong and confident America can negotiate with less powerful adversaries today," Obama said.

Obama promised to support more sanctions if Iran backs away from the talks.

But if the negotiations succeed, he said, Iran could take "an important step to rejoin the community of nations, and we will have resolved one of the leading security challenges of our time without the risks of war."


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