U.S. President Barack Obama is vowing to bypass a divided Congress and take action on his own to bolster America's middle class in a state of the union speech he used to try to breathe new life into his second term after a troubled year.

Standing in the House of Representatives chamber before legislators, Supreme Court justices and VIP guests, Obama declared his independence from Congress by issuing a raft of executive orders — a move likely to inflame already tense relations between the Democratic president and Republicans.

Obama's actions, while relatively modest, collectively amounted to an expression of frustration at the pace of legislative action with Republicans who control the House of Representatives and are able to slow the president's agenda.

The president says he plans to issue an executive order in the coming weeks requiring federal contractors to pay their federally funded employees at least $10.10 an hour, and urged Congress to raise the federal minimum wage to the same amount.

"Say yes. Give America a raise."

Obama touted the work of Republicans and Democrats is producing a budget last month, saying the budget compromise should leave the government freer to focus on creating new jobs.

"In the coming months, let's see where else we can make progress together. Let's make this a year of action. That's what most Americans want — for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations. And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all — the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead," he said.

'I don't expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this [health-care] law. But I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles.'

"Let's face it: that belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the great recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on."

A central theme of the address, Obama's sixth such annual speech in the House chamber, is addressing income inequality, as middle-class Americans struggle to get ahead even while wealthier people prosper in the uneven economic recovery.

'Let's get immigration reform done'

Obama's strategy means he has scaled back ambitions for large legislative actions and wants to focus more on small-bore initiatives that can reduce income inequality and create more opportunities for middle class workers.

State of Union

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the state of the union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday as Vice-President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner listen. (Larry Downing/Associated Press)

Obama defended his controversial health-care law, whose troubled roll-out last October rocked his presidency and sent his job approval ratings tumbling to around 40 per cent.

"I don't expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law," Obama said. "But I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles."

On one of his biggest priorities, immigration reform, Obama urged Congress to work together on an overhaul, but he held his fire on the issue, with signs of possible progress developing in recent days among House Republicans.

"Let's get immigration reform done this year," he said.

Obama also pledged to continue to work to reduce violence in the United States despite a lack of support in Congress for gun control measures he failed to get passed last year.

"I have seen the courage of parents, students, pastors, and police officers all over this country who say, 'We are not
afraid,' and I intend to keep trying, with or without Congress, to help stop more tragedies from visiting innocent Americans in our movie theatres, shopping malls, or schools," Obama said, according to the text of his state of the union address.

Both immigration and gun control were reforms on Obama's to-do list last year that stalled in Congress.

'While our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country.' - U.S. President Barack Obama

He also told lawmakers he will veto any efforts to increase sanctions on Iran while the United States and other Western powers were in diplomatic talks with Tehran over its nuclear program.

"The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible," Obama said, according to the text of his address, referring to diplomatic talks.

"But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed."

Closing Guantanamo Bay

In his speech, Obama said this needs to be the year the prison at Guantanamo Bay is closed.

"Because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals, and setting an example for the rest of the world," he said.

Obama said the U.S. government will "support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future," without making any specific promises around troop levels in the country.

"If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al-Qaeda," he said.

"For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country."

Obama only briefly mentioned one of the biggest controversies that has gripped his administration over the past year in his annual State of the Union speech Tuesday, repeating his pledge to overhaul U.S. surveillance programs in cooperation with Congress.

He said U.S. intelligence systems depend on the public's confidence that privacy rights are not being violated either at home or abroad.

Lawmakers are divided over how far to roll back the National Security Agency programs that collect billions of telephone and Internet records from across the U.S. and the rest of the world every day.

The spy programs were revealed last summer by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

Obama made no mention of whether he would approve the long-delayed Keystone XL Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline that environmentalists oppose.

Republicans clambered for some of the same rhetorical ground as Obama in pledging to narrow the gap between rich and poor, but staked out a different vision for doing so.

"It's one that champions free markets and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you," Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the House Republican caucus, said in her party's response to Obama's speech. "It helps working families rise above the limits of poverty and protects our most vulnerable."

Obama is trying to recover from a difficult fifth year in office, when immigration and gun control legislation failed to advance in Congress and his health-care law struggled out of the starting gate.

With files from CBC News