For Obama, a full 2014 agenda: Income inequality, NSA reforms, health care

In his end of year news conference Friday, President Obama recapped his administration's achievements in 2013 and previewed what's to come in the next year. (The Associated Press)

When President Obama returns to work on Monday following his two-week vacation here, he will begin the difficult task of rebooting his second-term agenda and developing a theme of economic fairness that Democrats can run on in the 2014 midterm campaigns.

Obama is looking to the Jan. 28 State of the Union address to unveil specific proposals addressing income inequality, including expanding the federal minimum wage to $10 or higher, which administration officials said they believe could garner some bipartisan support on Capitol Hill and be successful campaign issues for Democrats in November’s elections.

With millions of Americans receiving health-care coverage under the Affordable Care Act, Obama will try to shift the public’s attention from the disastrous rollout of the HealthCare.gov Web site to the real-life benefits of the law. Obama plans to do some outside-the-Beltway travel in the weeks ahead to showcase successes, according to administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the president’s plans.

The National Security Agency’s surveillance programs occupied much of Obama’s attention during his Hawaii respite, as Obama read briefing memos and pondered possible changes while lounging at his rented beachfront home, one administration official said. Obama intends to announce changes to the controversial spying programs in mid-January, and the official said some of his proposals would require approval from Congress.

First, though, the president will use the coming days to complete unfinished business from last year, starting with securing Senate confirmation of Janet Yellen, his pick to chair the Federal Reserve. Obama also will step up pressure on Congress to pass an emergency extension of unemployment insurance for the 1.3 million Americans who lost benefits starting Dec. 28.

Obama briefly interrupted his vacation to call Sens. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and Dean Heller (R-Nev.) and express his support for their bill extending benefits for three months. On Tuesday, Obama will stage an event at the White House, where he will stand alongside people who have lost benefits and make the case that failing to extend benefits would hurt the overall economy.

“Denying families that security is just plain cruel,” Obama said in his weekly radio address released Saturday. “We’re a better country than that. We don’t abandon our fellow Americans when times get tough — we keep the faith with them until they start that new job.”

Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), said, “If Democrats can produce a plan that is fiscally responsible as well as does something to actually create jobs, the House will give it proper consideration.”

Obama also is preparing a big push to expand the minimum wage. In the 2013 State of the Union, he proposed raising it to $9 per hour, but he has since backed a proposal by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to raise it to $10.10 per hour. An administration official said the president is open to other proposals and is considering announcing one of his own.

William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration, said unemployment insurance and the minimum wage could become “early wins” for Obama after a difficult 2013.

“Those are issues with histories. The public support is pretty clear. The public argument is pretty straightforward,” Galston said. Obama, he added, “needs to change the story, and the way to do that is to change gridlock into incremental victories that send the signal the administration is competent, picks its spots, and executes.”

Don Baer, a former Clinton White House adviser, said of Obama, “The more he is perceived as being someone who is bringing these forces together for the purposes of making things happen rather than two sides lining up against one another, the better it’s going to be for his politics and probably for the Democrats’ politics.”

The White House also sees possible common ground with Republicans over immigration, and Obama plans to continue to clamor for a comprehensive immigration overhaul.

In his Saturday address, which was recorded at the White House before he departed for Hawaii, Obama said he was “optimistic for the year that lies ahead.”

Obama returns to a West Wing that is integrating new people into new positions. John Podesta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff, begins work as a senior adviser on Monday, while Katie Beirne Fallon is moving from her post as deputy communications director to serve as Obama’s chief liaison to Congress. And Phil Schiliro has returned for his second stint in Obama’s White House — as a senior adviser overseeing the politics and implementation of the health-care law.

HealthCare.gov is now functioning better and enrollment numbers have climbed, although Obama’s advisers acknowledged that many challenges lie ahead.

“A fundamental political shift happened on January 1 because millions of Americans now have health insurance,” said Dan Pfeiffer, an Obama senior adviser. “The Republican strategy now means taking that insurance away. It was all theoretical until now, and the Republican repeal plan is no longer politically viable.”

But Buck said, “Americans have never bought into the White House PR campaigns — the law is as unpopular as ever — and they are much less likely to today, now that the president has lost so much credibility and while people everywhere are finding higher costs and shrinking access to care.”

This will be one of Obama’s first returns to Washington after the holiday break when a fiscal crisis is not in the offing. The two-year budget agreement reached late last year is in place, and administration officials call the deal a success because it restores hundreds of millions of dollars cut automatically last year by the sequester. But it limits Obama’s ability to seek new spending on infrastructure, education and research.

“We’re going to get more investment with this agreement than we would have gotten without it,” Pfeiffer said. “We are better off now than where we used to be but still not where we should be.”

Wilson reported from Washington.

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.
Scott Wilson is the chief White House correspondent for the Washington Post. Previously, he was the paper’s deputy Assistant Managing Editor/Foreign News after serving as a correspondent in Latin America and in the Middle East.
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