There were no ruffles and flourishes accompanying President Obama’s fifth State of the Union address. In its apparent realism about the state of his presidency and the state of American politics, Obama’s speech highlighted both the broad ambitions he still harbors and the limited means he now has to convert them into achievements.
Advance billing suggested the public might see a pugnacious president on Tuesday night, a chief executive whose frustrations with congressional Republicans had reached the breaking point. That is no doubt how he feels, given five years of partisan conflict and the flashes of anger he has displayed at times. But instead of anger, the strongest emotion he displayed on Tuesday night was impatience, as befits a president who is running out of time.
He prodded the Republicans. He tweaked them. He gently mocked them for having voted 40 times, unsuccessfully, to defund the Affordable Care Act. But he did not call them out as directly or in the kind of partisan language he has used in other settings over past months. He simply said that he would no longer rely primarily on congressional action to get things done.
He said he would now govern by executive order whenever he sees opportunities to do so. If legislative negotiations prove as fruitless this year as they have in the past, if Congress dallies, he will act. By necessity, however, that will mean he is working more at the margins as he tries to deal with problems ranging from income inequality and economic insecurity to energy and climate change. In a display of strength, he acknowledged his limitations.
The thinking behind the address was the latest example of a cycle of approach and withdrawal that has marked Obama’s dealings with congressional Republicans for several years now. His strategy of unilateral action once again reflects his and his advisers’ determination not to get caught in what they regard as fruitless efforts to reach common ground with Republicans that have more often than not resulted in gridlock, failure and political damage.
They thought the same thing after the collapse of debt ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011. In the wreckage that followed, aides vowed not to have the president spend time in closed-door sessions with GOP leaders. Instead, he set out not just to win reelection but to win the debate with his opponents over the direction of the country and questions of government’s role.
That was where he stood a year ago at this time, believing his victory in 2012 had given him a mandate to act and hoping that the election would somehow ease the gridlock on Capitol Hill. At that time, he was bluntly partisan in his criticism of the GOP’s most conservative wing about the limits of his tolerance for obstructionism and opposition. Instead, things seemed to get worse.
Last year was marked by a partial shutdown of the government, forced by a flawed GOP strategy. That hurt Republicans. What followed, the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, hurt Obama more. The year was judged to be the worst year of his presidency. White House officials relearned the lesson of 2011 and from that has come the strategy of unilateral action if the machinery on Capitol Hill is once again ground to a stop by partisan warfare.
That’s not to say Obama will not be looking to Congress for action and achievements. The budget agreement at the end of last year offers a glimmer of hope that Congress can still come together. The latest deal on a long-stalled farm bill could be another confidence-builder.
Immigration reform remains a live issue as the year begins, and passage would be a significant achievement. Obama has pushed for it since he won reelection, but his ability to influence the debate in the House is more than limited. Through most of last year, the advice he and his advisers received was to stay low and not to do anything that would make GOP action less likely. That hasn’t changed as talk of House action has increased.
One could argue that Obama’s most important priority, beyond any particular policy initiative, should be doing what he can to help Democrats retain their Senate majority. That majority is clearly in jeopardy. A Republican takeover of the Senate, along with a continuation of their House majority, would be a crippling loss for Obama heading into his final two years.
Obama may have only modest hope of major legislative breakthroughs this year, but he retains the ability to try to set the terms for the midterm elections in a year when history says the party in the White House almost always loses seats. That made Tuesday’s speech as much a campaign manifesto as a governing blueprint.
Democrats need to do what they can to produce an electorate in November that looks more like it did in 2012 than it did in 2010. Obama may not be able to reach common ground with Republicans. What he can do is to try to draw as many contrasts with them as possible in order to energize Democrats to turn out in big numbers in November.
Obama enjoys public support for a number of the issues he is promoting, including raising the minimum wage and an extension of long-term unemployment benefits. He hopes he will either have accomplishments to point to or issues for Democratic candidates to use against their GOP opponents in the fall.
He offered a strong defense of the Affordable Care Act, which he has done before. He must do more, rhetorically and substantively, to reassure Democrats that the health-care law will not become a defining negative issue this fall.
Some party strategists believe Obama is starting the year in better shape than the more pessimistic polls suggest, that health care will not be a big losing issue in November, and that he is in position to wage an effective campaign this fall.
Others are less sanguine — hopeful but wary about the president’s condition. Some also are worried by what they say are signs that Democrats have slipped among female voters, who are crucial to the party’s success. Obama’s State of the Union was notable for the strong appeal he made on issues such as pay equity and leave time for women.
One other reality about the president’s position is that most of the crucial Senate races involving endangered Democrats are in predominantly Republican states, where voters are more conservative and Obama’s approval rating is generally lower than it is nationally.
That, too, could limit just how full-throated the president can be in pushing a populist agenda that draws stark contrasts with Republicans, which so many progressives want to hear, without compromising those candidates.
All of this means that this will be a year of high stakes and lowered expectations, which is not where Obama planned to be in the sixth year of his presidency.