President Obama will use the State of the Union address on Tuesday to emphasize his willingness to work around Republicans in Congress through executive orders and convening meetings of key leaders from outside Washington in an attempt to both accomplish his goals and escape the perception that he is a largely powerless figure because of GOP opposition.
Obama aides, in advance of the speech, have cast this approach as the president’s new-found use of his “pen” and “phone.” And the president is expected to announce the signing of a series of executive orders, including one to increase the wages for some federal contractors, and call for more meetings , such as a session later this week in which he will urge corporations not to discriminate in their hiring practices against people who have been employed for more than six months.
In truth, this not a new strategy. Obama has been using such executive orders for more than three years, from when Republicans took control of Congress in 2010 and started blocking his proposals. The president all but ended the deportation of young people who are the children of undocumented immigrants in a 2012 move and enacted some gun control policies last year though executive orders, both steps taken because Republicans in Congress opposed broader legislation.
What’s new now is that after a 2013 that Obama has acknowledged was a challenge, the administration wants to cast the president as a man of action pushing through policies on his own, not a bystander as members of Congress debate and often block his agenda. Obama spent much of last year in private dinners, unsuccessfully trying to get Republicans behind some his proposals, such as immigration reform. In public, he was often on the defensive, particularly in the flawed rollout of “Obamacare.”
With this new approach, Obama can solve problems, at least small-bore ones, by himself. Earlier this month, the administration organized an event in which states and colleges from across the country made pledges to enact specific policies themselves that would make it easier for low-income students to enter and graduate from college. It accomplished a key Obama goal without him having to go to Congress. Getting a higher minimum wage passed in the Republican House will be difficult, so the president is trying to at least help a few workers through his executive order.
It’s important to note that the White House understands Obama must work with Congress to get broader legislation passed and is actively meeting with Republicans to negotiate compromises on a comprehensive immigration bill, an update to the Voting Rights Act and other issues.
Obama though, wants to emphasize that he is doing playing two games, one inside the Beltway with Congress, the other on a broader scale with whatever group or business will work with him even if lawmakers will not.