In State of the Union address, Obama seeks to restore trust in his presidency

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WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama sought Tuesday night to restore public confidence and trust in his presidency after a dispiriting year, pledging to use his White House authority with new force to advance an agenda that Congress has largely failed to support.

In his fifth State of the Union address, Obama challenged lawmakers to work with him to achieve breakthroughs on large-scale initiatives to overhaul immigration laws and provide more benefits to American workers, including a higher minimum wage and an extension of long-term unemployment insurance.

But he also sketched out more than a dozen ways in which he intends to use executive powers to try to boost the economy, a recognition that he is running out of time to achieve second-term goals in the face of unyielding Republican opposition.

"What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class," Obama said. "Some require congressional action, and I'm eager to work with all of you.

"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 laid out what aides described as an "optimistic" view of where the nation is headed, calling for a "year of action" just months after the public grew further disenchanted with Washington.

His challenge was to convince a nation that had grown less trustful of his leadership that he is able to break through the partisan gridlock to make meaningful improvement in people's lives.

To that end, Obama announced a list of executive actions that he will pursue in the coming months aimed at slowing the widening income gap among American families. The White House has called them a top priority for the year.

They include plans to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour by 2015, create a new government-backed private retirement savings plan and speed up implementation of a previously announced program to connect schools to broadband wireless.

White House aides described the initiatives as having the potential to help millions of Americans gain more take-home pay, job training and education.

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Republicans quickly denounced the proposals as small potatoes and accused Obama of failing to work through the legislative process to achieve more sweeping initiatives.

"I suspect the president has the authority to raise the minimum wage for those dealing with federal contracts," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). But he pointed out that it doesn't affect current contracts, only future ones. "How many people, Mr. President, will this executive action actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero."

White House aides were unable to estimate how many people could be helped by the program this year.

Boehner said the White House should approve the long-delayed Keystone XL oil-sands pipeline, which would move oil from Canada into the United States and which Republicans and labor unions say would create thousands of jobs. Obama has said he is awaiting an environmental impact review.

Overall, Obama's scaled-down ambitions were reflected in how his speech compared with last year's, which he concluded with an emotional appeal to Congress to approve a tougher set of gun laws in the wake of the mass shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

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Congress rejected each of those proposals, and though Obama touched on gun violence Tuesday night, he has dropped his call for broad reforms in recent months.

On foreign policy, Obama implored Congress not to pass new sanctions in Iran as his administration attempts to negotiate a multilateral agreement with Tehran over its nuclear program. He noted the U.S. military's continuing withdrawal from the long war in Afghanistan, telling the public that the country could maintain a small force there for counterterrorism operations and to train Afghan troops.

An emotional highlight of the night was Obama's tribute to Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger who was nearly killed by a roadside bomb on his 10th deployment in Afghanistan.

Remsburg, a guest of first lady Michelle Obama, received a lengthy standing ovation after the president declared, "Cory is here tonight. And like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit."

With AP

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