President Obama’s speech on Tuesday night, like most State of the Union addresses, covered nearly every major issue. But here’s a concrete look at what he can actually get done in his sixth year in the presidency:
1. Get Republicans to sign bills in their self-interest
In a briefing before the speech, a senior White House official said the lesson the administration has learned from the last five years is that Obama’s attempts to court Republicans through relationship-building, like having private dinners with key GOP senators, is unlikely to work. Putting some Republican ideas into his initiatives, as Obama did with the economic stimulus and the health care law, also doesn’t tend to draw Republican support.
The key, as this official noted, is to find issues where working with Obama will help Republicans politically. In that context, Obama’s proposal for universal pre-kindergarten is likely dead. Updating the Voting Rights Act or increasing the minimum wage, two other Obama priorities, will only be approved if polls show Republicans will lose in the fall elections if they oppose these measures. So Obama will tout a minimum wage hike publicly in part to drive up support for it enough that Republicans feel compelled to sign some kind of increase.
In this context, White House officials are most optimistic about immigration reform, because they argue the GOP needs to improve its image among Hispanic voters for this fall’s elections and even more before the next presidential campaign. To be sure, White House officials said that last year too, and then watched immigration reform stall in Congress. But the biggest chance for a major legislative achievement in 2014 is on immigration.
2. Smartly use the symbolic powers of the presidency
Obama repeatedly mentioned taking executive actions to implement his ideas. In reality, that is a very limited tool: millions of Americans would benefit from an increase in the minimum wage, while Obama’s executive order to increase pay for people working under federal contracts would affect several hundred thousand at most.
What the president can do is lead by speaking and highlighting issues. By bringing a spotlight, as he did on Tuesday, to the challenges people who have been unemployed for a long time face in getting new jobs, he could affect the thinking of some corporations or hiring managers. His education summit earlier this month encouraged colleges to consider new ways to help low-income students apply, perform well while on campus and eventually graduate. His push to make sure no American spends more than 30 minutes in line before they can cast a vote could galvanize officials around the country to examine ways to improve their processes on Election Day.
3. Start building toward a post-Obama Democratic Party
As Obama’s chances of enacting major policies shrinks as his tenure moves closer to an end, the president’s speeches and ideas should be considered as more of a guidepost to a Democratic successor than proposals he expects to pass. His proposal to expand pre-kindergarten education, while not being approved by Congress, is appearing in the agendas of Democratic candidates for governor throughout the country and is very likely to be touted by Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or whoever the Democratic candidate is in 2016. Measures to make it easier to vote and to increase the minimum wage can be passed in states too, even if they aren’t achieved federally. The president’s emphasis on declining social mobility could be an entire theme for Clinton’s candidacy.