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Obama to lay out go-it-alone approach in big speech

U.S. President Barack Obama sits inside the Oval Office with a pen in hand as he prepares for Tuesday night’s State of the Union Address to the nation on Capitol Hill, while at the White House in Washington, January 27, 2014. CREDIT: REUTERS/LARRY DOWNING

(Reuters) – President Barack Obama will lay out a strategy for getting around a divided Congress and boosting middle-class prosperity on Tuesday in a State of the Union speech that reflects some scaled-back legislative ambitions after a difficult year.

Obama will make clear in his 9 p.m. address that he is willing to bypass U.S. lawmakers and go it alone in some areas by announcing a series of executive actions that do not require congressional approval.

The White House said Obama would announce he is issuing an executive order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contract workers with new contracts.

In his address, Obama will also call on Congress to pass a bill that would increase the federal minimum wage for all workers to $10.10 an hour from $7.25 and index that to inflation going forward.

The executive order for new contracts or existing contracts in which terms are being changed would take effect at the beginning of next year, with janitors and construction workers among the beneficiaries. Issuing the order allows Obama to bypass Congress in a limited way, with Republicans opposed to a broad increase in the minimum wage.

White House officials said Obama would also announce new executive actions on retirement security and job training to help middle-class workers expand economic opportunity.

“In this year of action, the president will seek out as many opportunities as possible to work with Congress in a bipartisan way. But when American jobs and livelihoods depend on getting something done, he will not wait for Congress,” Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said in an email to supporters sketching out the themes of the speech.

With three years left in office, Obama has effectively reduced for now his ambitions for grand legislative actions.

He is expected to renew his appeal for a long-stalled immigration overhaul that has been stymied by Republicans. He will promote his signature healthcare law, four months after its disastrous rollout.

The address, Obama’s sixth such speech in the House of Representatives chamber, is aimed at addressing income inequality, with middle-class Americans struggling to get ahead even while wealthier people prosper in the uneven economic recovery.

The president’s most significant speech of the year has been weeks in the making, with Obama working on it at night and chief speechwriter Cody Keenan during the day, with input from academics, policy experts, elected officials, former administration officials and business executives.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the speech was a big chance to speak to U.S. lawmakers but “even more importantly, to the millions of Americans, millions of Americans who tune in.”

“And the president looks forward to that and will offer in his address his vision and his agenda for moving the country forward, and the steps that we can take to expand opportunity for all Americans,” he told reporters.

Attending the speech will be a variety of Americans who will sit with his wife, Michelle Obama, in order to stress issues that are important to the White House, such as heroes from last year’s Boston Marathon bombings, a firefighter who led the rescue response to an Oklahoma tornado, and an openly gay basketball player.

‘COMES DOWN TO ECONOMIC ISSUES’

One of Obama’s goals is to lay out a narrative that Democratic congressional candidates can adopt in the run-up to November elections as they try to hold on to their Senate majority and challenge Republicans for control of the House.

The party that controls the White House typically loses seats in the “midterm” elections, which presents Obama with a bit of a challenge.

“It comes down to economic issues,” said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “The economy is going to be the thing that determines whether people have confidence in the president. If the economy is doing well, people will forgive a lot of the things the president has done or not done.”

Obama is trying to recover from a difficult fifth year in office, when immigration and gun control legislation failed to advance in Congress, his healthcare law struggled out of the starting gate, and he appeared uncertain about what to do about Syria’s civil war.

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

Obama’s Republican opponents will be listening for clues as to whether the two sides can work together on issues like expanding trade. They are taking a dim view of Obama’s go-it-alone plans.

“The truth is, without going outside his authority – something sure to be received poorly by the American people and Congress – there is little the president can do on his own to make a real difference. If there were, why hasn’t he already done so?” said Brendan Buck, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.

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