President Obama had a message for Republicans in his State of the Union address: he’s not letting them block all of his initiatives in 2014, as they did most of last year.
The tone of Obama’s fifth State of the Union was not particularly aggressive or fiery. He did little to directly criticize the GOP. But the theme of his speech, more than his long list of policy ideas, was simply the determination of the president. Obama, as he said over and over again in the speech, is going to act on whatever policy issues he feels appropriate, with or without Congress.
“America does not stand still and neither will I. Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” he said.
Obama said he would lift the wages of people working under federal contracts to at least $10.10 per hour, even if Congress would not pass a minimum wage increase for all Americans. He would restructure training programs to help jobless Americans get hired, even if Congress refuses to expand unemployment insurance. He would work with officials in states, businesses and philanthropists to expand early childhood education, even if the Republicans would not agree to a national, universal pre-kindergarten program.
These ideas, to be sure, are largely small-bore. The increase in pay for contractors is likely to benefit fewer than 1 million Americans. It will be hard to expand early education programs without funding from Congress or support from Republicans. None of the president’s executive actions on the economy would help as many Americans as Congress extending unemployment benefits for an estimated 1.6 million Americans.
And the biggest goals of Obama’s administration, reforming the immigration system and taking major steps to reducing income inequality, still require congressional approval.
But the speech illustrates a shift from the White House. The administration spent its first three years trying to cut bipartisan deals with Republicans before shifting to a more confrontational approach during the 2012 election. Once Obama won reelection, he again spent much of the year courting Republican members of Congress, as he and his team met in particular for several private meals with a group of GOP senators that included Arizona’s John McCain.
It didn’t work. Immigration reform and gun control were blocked by Republicans in Congress. The GOP senators the president had worked were not able to stop their House counterparts from shutting down the government last fall.
Now, Obama sounds like he recognizes the reality that broad compromises with Republicans in Congress are unlikely for the remainder of his presidency. In a briefing with reporters before Obama’s speech, senior administration officials said that the president was only saying a few lines about immigration in the State of the Union because he realizes if the issue is too personally associated with him, Republican members of Congress will feel as if they must oppose it.
Administration officials are still trying to craft deals with Republicans on a number of issues. But they want to change how Obama’s success is measured by the press and others. By announcing in the State of the Union that he is taking actions without Congress, each executive action from Obama will now be viewed as part of a strategy, not simply an acknowledgment of the limits of his power while dealing with a Republican-controlled House. This approach puts Obama in the position of leading actions (even if limited in scope) in Washington, instead of playing the role of bystander as bickering on Capitol Hill commands news coverage.
This new tact is unlikely to change how Republicans actually respond to Obama. His taking executive actions won’t force them into negotiations on anything. At the same time, there is little risk that taking these actions will limit Obama’s ability to work with Congress: Republicans were already opposing most of his agenda.