WASHINGTON — President Obama plans to sign an executive order requiring that janitors, construction workers and others working for federal contractors be paid at least $10.10 an hour, using his own power to enact a more limited version of a policy that he has yet to push through Congress.
The order, which Mr. Obama will highlight in his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday night, is meant to underscore an increasing willingness by the president to bypass Congress if lawmakers continue to resist his agenda, aides said. After a year in which most of his legislative priorities went nowhere, Mr. Obama is seeking ways to make progress despite a lack of cooperation on Capitol Hill.
The minimum wage plan provides an example of what he has in mind. Mr. Obama called on Congress during last year’s State of the Union address to raise the minimum wage for workers across the board, only to watch the proposal languish on Capitol Hill, where opponents argued it would hurt businesses and stifle job creation. With prospects for congressional action still slim, Mr. Obama is using the executive order covering federal contractors to go as far as he can on his own.
“You can be sure that the president fully intends to use his executive authority to use the unique powers of the office to make progress on economic opportunity, to make progress in the areas that he believes are so important to further economic growth and further job creation,” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Monday.
But the minimum wage order will also illustrate the limits of that approach. If Congress increases the federal minimum wage to $10.10 from $7.25 as Mr. Obama has sought, 21 million employees will eventually get a raise unless their jobs are eliminated, according to estimates by a liberal research organization. Mr. Obama’s order will affect relatively few at first because it will apply only to new or renewed contracts, and even down the road at most it might affect several hundred thousand workers.
Even so, Mr. Obama’s vow to use his executive authority more robustly has drawn criticism from Republicans who say he has already stretched and, in some cases, exceeded the bounds of his power, much as he once accused President George W. Bush of doing.
Among other things, Mr. Obama unilaterally deferred deportation of many younger illegal immigrants after Congress declined to pass legislation giving them legal status. He has delayed enforcement of several aspects of his hotly disputed health care law. He declined to defend in court the Defense of Marriage Act, a law barring federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
As he looks ahead to three more years in office, and with Republicans likely to still hold one if not both houses of Congress, Mr. Obama has sought other ways of enacting his agenda. Perhaps the most far-reaching area will be the environment, where the Environmental Protection Agency is working on regulations to limit carbon emissions at the nation’s power plants.
Republicans dismissed the notion that Mr. Obama should give up on Congress and rely on his own power more. “Ronald Reagan didn’t think that, and Bill Clinton didn’t think that,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said on “Fox News Sunday” over the weekend. “Frequently, times of divided government are quite good times in terms of achieving things for the American people.”
Mr. Obama’s speech on Tuesday night will be his fifth formal State of the Union address — his speech to Congress in early 2009 did not technically qualify — and in some ways will be the most challenging. The president, who is reeling in the polls after a year of setbacks, wants to use the moment to re-establish his command of Washington before midterm elections this fall and, after that, the presidential primaries consume public attention.
The speech, which has been drafted over the last few weeks, will promote an overhaul of the immigration system and address the president’s concern about the growing income gap between the rich and poor. As part of that, he will renew his call for Congress to pass a minimum-wage increase.
As a prod to lawmakers, Mr. Obama plans to announce his plan to sign the executive order directing federal contractors to pay higher wages. The new rule will apply only to new federal contracts or in cases where contracts are renegotiated with new conditions.
White House officials offered no estimate of how many workers would actually be affected either immediately or as contracts are signed and renegotiated over time. A study by Demos, an organization that seeks to reduce corporate influence in politics, estimated that 560,000 people working for federal contractors make $12 an hour or less.
The president and his supporters argue that the minimum wage has not kept up with the cost of living, and they maintain that an increase is a long-overdue means of reducing disparities. Critics said that the economy was still too fragile to add to the burdens of business owners whose costs would go up along with the minimum wage and therefore might end up cutting jobs.