PRESIDENT Barack Obama has used his biggest speech of the year to push for narrowing the gap between rich and poor - and pledged to sidestep Congress "whenever and wherever" necessary to bypass the political gridlock that has bedevilled his presidency.

Mr Obama's State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress and millions of Americans watching at home was the opening salvo in a fight for control of Congress ahead of the November election.

Democrats, seeking to cast Republicans as uncaring about the middle class, have urged Mr Obama to focus on economic mobility and the disparity between the wealthy and poor.

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His focus on executive actions was met by shouts of "Do it!" from members of his party.