The State of the Union’s false leadership debate

January 29, 2014

(AP Photo/Larry Downing, Pool)

Which is better leadership: stubbornly trying to get an obstructionist Congress to follow you on big agenda items, or making the pragmatic choice to achieve what you can — with more limited scope — despite them?

That's the fundamental leadership question many are asking about President Obama's State of the Union address, in which he promised to go it alone "wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation." In paragraph after paragraph of the more than hour-long speech, Obama outlined the executive actions he will take and presidential orders he will make to move ahead whether Congress goes along with him or not. "America does not stand still," the president said. "And neither will I."

Some Republicans howled about an imperial presidency governed by fiat. News headlines highlighted how the president "vows to act alone" or how he promised to "flex powers" and "sidestep Congress". But for all the attention being paid to the president's supposed strategy of going solo, nowhere in the speech did he say he plans to ignore Congress or stop working with them. Leadership is not a black-or-white proposition, and any attempt to govern in today's era of hyper-partisanship requires Obama to do both — take action when he can, and reach out when he needs support.

Yes, there was a "set of concrete, practical proposals" the president has the authority to take on his own, most of which were either modest or vague. The president spoke of raising the minimum wage on future government contracts, "protecting more of our pristine federal lands," starting a new form of retirement account and reviewing federal training contracts.

But Obama also talked again and again about ways he would be looking to Congress to pass legislation. He spoke of working together to close tax loopholes and end incentives to outsource jobs overseas. He called for Congress to reverse cuts to research funding, pass a patent reform bill, and move forward with bipartisan legislation in both houses to expand high-tech innovation hubs. He talked about the need for Congressional action on immigration reform, unemployment insurance, financial regulation and student loans. He said he planned to work with Congress to reform surveillance programs and that Congress should lift restrictions on detainee transfers, making this the year to finally close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

This president has been criticized for his overuse of the false choice: a rhetorical device that sets up two extremes when there are actually middle-ground alternatives. Yet the public debate over whether Obama's leadership in the rest of his second term will be defined by small-bore executive actions or leading Congressional compromise is a similarly erroneous setup.

As everyone knows — from voters to the president's opponents to a White House that has chosen to highlight the president's "year of action" — good leadership requires both. If Obama wants a legacy he can be proud of, it's clear he must do what's within his powers as the nation's chief executive and persuade lawmakers to follow him on the big ideas that will require Congressional action.

WATCH: The State of the Union in 3 minutes:

Read also:

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Obama's risky action: Go it alone

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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