The tone and tenor of the Obama White House since Democrats suffered a crushing defeat during the November midterm elections have been anything but conciliatory and have raised doubts about whether the president can — or wants to — break through partisan gridlock before voters choose his successor next year.
The president will enter the House chamber Tuesday night for his sixth State of the Union address riding a wave of confidence driven by an improving economy and brightening public approval ratings. And he seems as defiant as ever.
Although Obama has vetoed just two bills in his six years, the White House has threatened to veto five measures from Congress this month alone — including legislation that would authorize the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline, tie funding of the Department of Homeland Security to a rollback of Obama’s executive actions on immigration, and impose new economic sanctions on Iran.
Obama vowed in a private meeting with Democrats last week that he will play “offense” during the final two years of his presidency, building on the aggressive executive actions he laid out over the past two months. The legislative proposals he has previewed — including a plan for free community college and a revamping of the tax code — have been based firmly on his terms, drawing objections from Republicans.
In the weeks leading up to the speech, Obama has toured the country trying to build momentum, putting Republicans on the defensive. Twenty-three guests will join first lady Michelle Obama in her box during the prime-time address, as the president seeks to illustrate his priorities for improving the lives of middle-class Americans. And the White House announced that Obama will travel to Boise, Idaho, and Lawrence, Kan., this week to follow up on his speech in a pair of deep-red states — including one, Idaho, that he has never visited as president.
“America’s resurgence is real,” Obama said in his weekly radio address. “Our job now is to make sure that every American feels that they’re a part of our country’s comeback. That’s what I’ll focus on in my State of the Union — how to build on our momentum, with rising wages, growing incomes and a stronger middle class. And I’ll call on this new Congress to join me in putting aside the political games and finding areas where we agree so we can deliver for the American people.”
White House aides said they see no contradiction in Obama’s approach to dealing with the GOP-controlled Congress this year, and they point out that some of his proposals received Republican support in the past. They say Obama is eager to work with the GOP in areas where there is common ground, such as free trade and infrastructure. Republicans — including Obama’s 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney — have been adopting a more populist message on the economy, emphasizing mobility and wage growth, ahead of the 2016 presidential race.
Yet as Obama takes his case to the American public in his address, he has made clear that he doesn’t intend to cede much ground to his rivals.
“Some of them are going to be legislative proposals Republicans may not love, but we’ll push them,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He emphasized that the administration will use “every lever we can — whether it’s with Congress, on our own or using the bully pulpit.”
The president’s proposal to raise $320 billion in new revenue over 10 years by increasing taxes and fees for wealthy Americans and big financial institutions angered Republicans, who had cited tax reform as a potential area of compromise.
“I would guess the president would love for Republicans in Congress to take the bait or to somehow have our heads turned away from working toward constructive solutions in some cases,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in an interview, when asked about Obama’s strategy. “Our goal should be to perform, to show we can legislate responsibly, to show that we are steady, to show that we look out in advance for oncoming issues that need to be dealt with, and that we don’t have the herky-jerky, stop-start, government-on and government-off method that’s been occurring in recent times.”
Corker was one of three congressional Republicans who flew aboard Air Force One with Obama to Knoxville, Tenn., two weeks ago for the president’s announcement of his community college plan — which the White House said would cost the federal government at least $60 billion over 10 years. Their presence on the presidential jet suggested, at least symbolically, that Obama intended new outreach across the aisle. But Corker said that he doesn’t agree with the community college plan — and that he and Obama did not discuss it during their flight or subsequent ride together in the presidential limousine. Rather, he said, they focused on foreign policy. Corker is the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Inside the West Wing, presidential advisers said they don’t think Obama’s aggressive rollout of executive actions and new proposals would further poison the political environment or diminish his chances of working with Republicans on what could be lasting achievements. Rather, aides said, the GOP will pursue bipartisan legislation when it is in their best interest, pointing to Republican support for a $1 trillion spending plan last month to keep the government open.
White House allies have been buoyed by the president’s newly vigorous posture. After two years in which the White House often found itself on the defensive amid a series of domestic and international crises, the president and his advisers have made “a tactical change,” said Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network, a liberal think tank. “They’re doing a better job at creating attention around the fact that they actually have a plan, a series of things they want to do.”
But Republicans insist that won’t be enough. The GOP-controlled Congress is unlikely to pursue the proposals he has put forward and instead will begin to put bills on Obama’s desk and dare him to stop them.
“Given how poorly the election went for them, they need to find some way to derive a narrative,” David Winston, president of the Winston Group, a conservative consulting firm, said of the White House. On the president’s executive actions, he added, “There’s only so many he can do. . . . Ultimately, they have to figure out as a White House how to actually interact and get things done at a national level.”