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Obama on the road to call for action on income inequality after annual speech to Congress

President Barack Obama speaks to Costco employees during a visit to a local Costco in Lanham, Md., Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. The president is promoting his newly unveiled plans to boost wages for some workers and help Americans save for retirement no action from Congress necessary. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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President Barack Obama speaks to Costco employees during a visit to a local Costco in Lanham, Md., Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014. The president is promoting his newly unveiled plans to boost wages for some workers and help Americans save for retirement no action from Congress necessary. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama set off Wednesday on a four-city tour to pound home his annual State of the Union message, a call to action by a divided Congress to reduce income inequality and a promise to get around legislative gridlock by using his executive powers wherever he can.

The vast gap between the richest and regular Americans has only grown worse since the Great Recession and near collapse of the economy in 2008.

Obama, after what is traditionally a president's biggest speech of the year, was trying as well to help fellow Democrats ahead of November's midterm congressional elections at a time when his popularity has fallen dramatically despite a steadily improving economy. Unemployment remains high.

"America does not stand still, and neither will I," the president said Tuesday night in an address to Congress on live television. "So whatever and wherever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do."

Republicans, especially in the House of Representatives, have managed to block most of the president's legislative agenda since they re-took the House of Representatives in 2010. Their leader, Speaker John Boehner, was quick to dismiss Obama's plans for executive action.

"The president must understand his power is limited by our Constitution, and the authority he has doesn't add up to much for those without opportunity in this economy," he said.

Obama has acknowledged he faces constitutional limits in acting without Congress, and he renewed his calls for action on his legislative agenda of creating jobs, overhauling immigration laws, combating climate change and more. The president declared he would rely on executive orders where and when he could.

Obama has some hope of winning support for an immigration overhaul, as Republicans try to build support among the country's growing Hispanic population ahead of the election.

But a Republican senator who's a major player on immigration policy said Wednesday there's no chance now of passing a broad overhaul. Sen. Marco Rubio, a potential White House contender in 2016, told reporters that Obama is to blame for causing Republicans to lose trust in him.

While domestic issues dominated Obama's speech, the president also warned Congress he would veto any sanctions bill that threatens to derail talks with Iran about its nuclear program, even as he acknowledged that the negotiations may not succeed.

On the conflict in Syria, he pledged "to work with the international community to usher in the future the Syrian people deserve — a future free of dictatorship, terror and fear."

Obama reaffirmed that the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan will formally conclude at the end of this year. But he said a small contingent of American forces could be left behind if the Afghan government quickly signs a bilateral security agreement, a prospect that looks increasingly uncertain.

Obama said the United States "will continue to focus on the Asia-Pacific" and called the alliance with Europe "the strongest the world has ever known."

The White House sees a robust rollout of executive actions as the most effective way to show the public that Obama still wields power in the sixth year of his presidency.

An AP-GfK poll this month found 45 per cent of those surveyed approved of Obama and 53 per cent disapproved. That's much worse than a year ago, when 54 per cent approved and 42 per cent disapproved.

Republicans saw their own approval ratings plummet in 2013.

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Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Josh Lederman and Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.

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