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Obama's State of the Union attempts to hit restart on troubled second term

By Stephen Collinson

WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama vowed to reverse a tide of economic inequality threatening the American dream Tuesday, seeking to outflank Republicans and revive a second term blighted by self-inflicted wounds and partisan warfare.

In his annual State of the Union address, Obama promised to wield his executive powers in a “year of action” to lift up workers, improve education and clean up the environment if his foes in Congress balk at more sweeping action.

“America does not stand still — and neither will I,” Obama said, talking past the lawmakers gathered in the House of Representatives directly to millions of television viewers.

“Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled and too many still aren't working at all.

“Our job is to reverse these trends,” Obama said, pounding out his points with a punchy, optimistic delivery, apparently keen to suggest that despite five grueling years he still has energy and purpose for his task.

While focusing squarely on a domestic audience, Obama strayed into foreign policy only briefly during the one hour, 16-minute speech, as his cabinet and military brass looked on.

He vowed to support democracy in Ukraine, warned al-Qaida's threat had evolved and yet again urged Congress to let him close the war on terror camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But mostly Obama mined a political seam that has proven rich in the past, billing himself as the champion of middle class families fighting to overcome the worst recession since the Great Depression.

He opened on an upbeat note, saying that thanks to “five years of grit” by the American people, the U.S. economy was finally poised for a “breakthrough.”

“The United States is better positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on earth,” Obama declared, touting the lowest unemployment rate in five years and a rebounding housing market.

Yet he argued the “defining project of our generation is to restore” the promise of equality of opportunity for all Americans.

He promised to use executive action to raise the minimum wage for federal workers on new contracts from US$7.25 to US$10.10 per hour and to create a new retirement savings “starter” scheme to help millions of Americans.

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid said the upper chamber will vote on the wage increase proposal in the coming weeks “and I hope Republicans will join us in turning this and other common-sense proposals into law.”

Obama called on corporate CEOs to pledge not to discriminate against long-term unemployed job seekers, and to introduce new energy-efficient fuel standards for trucks while working with cities and states to promote cleaner power.

But Obama's vows of action is likely to reach far fewer Americans than could be helped through legislation.

While he has the power to raise the minimum wage for federal workers, a reluctant Congress would be required to extend the measure across the entire economy.

He called on lawmakers to “say 'yes,' give America a raise” but they appear unlikely to heed his call.

Such is the stranglehold Republicans have clamped on Congress, much of Obama's second term agenda is stillborn.

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U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, Jan. 28, as Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) listen. (AFP)

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