On Tuesday, Obama was intent on setting more manageable goals in a time of intense partisan intransigence.
The president said he intended to speed up implementation of the ConnectEd program, his plan to connect all schools to the Internet. He said he would create a "starter savings account" to help people who don't have 401(k) plans or pensions for retirement.
He reminded listeners of his power to regulate power plant emissions, noting that the shift to cleaner energy would require "tough choices." "Climate change is a fact," he said. "And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world … I want us to be able to say yes, we did."
Obama proposed some initiatives that would need congressional approval. He called for expansion of the earned income tax credit for workers without children, including non-custodial parents. The idea, which Obama has promoted before, is to raise the maximum credit and make it available to more low-wage workers.
The White House is also seeking to show what one official described as "creative" uses of its power that don't involve executive orders or legislation. Obama plans to meet with CEOs to encourage them to hire the long-term unemployed, meet with college presidents to talk about affordability, and initiate a partnership with businesses, community colleges and labor unions to create more on-the-job apprenticeships.
The president has already publicized some of these efforts and plans more events. On Wednesday, he'll set out on a two-day, four-state tour that starts at a Costco in Maryland. The big-box retailer has raised wages above the required minimum.
Obama's remarks were overwhelmingly focused on domestic policy. He waited until the end of his speech, which lasted more than an hour, to make an extended reference to the war in Afghanistan. He said that he had put Al Qaeda's leadership "on a path to defeat" and noted that he had reduced the number of U.S. troops there.
He pledged to support the rebels in Syria, but made no commitment to provide further aid.
He took credit for an interim deal with Iran to freeze its nuclear program, but warned lawmakers not to interfere with the negotiations by enacting more sanctions.
"If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it," he said. "If Iran's leaders do not seize this opportunity, then I will be the first to call for more sanctions."
Obama also offered a moving tribute to a wounded soldier, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger who was nearly killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan and who has suffered through surgeries and rehabilitation.
Remsburg, his head scarred and partially shaved, sat with First Lady Michelle Obama in the gallery and rose slowly to applause.
"Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy," Obama said. "Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes."