Analysis: Obama’s risky strategy

The president seems eager to go it alone, which is antagonizing

THE WASHINGTON POSTJanuary 29, 2014 

This wasn’t the presidency Barack Obama had in mind after winning his historic election five years ago. But it is the one he believes he has left.

For the first time since taking office, Obama spoke to Congress on Tuesday evening from a clear position of confrontation, threatening to veto new Iran sanctions, warning against further moves against his health care law and demanding action on a series of previously proposed economic measures.

The areas he identified for possible cooperation with a divided Congress have shrunk, leaving an agenda filled out by a growing number of modest initiatives that he told lawmakers he intends to carry out alone.

Among them is an executive order raising the minimum wage paid under future federal contracts. In a tone less resigned than dismissive, Obama said he intends to implement more than a dozen others this year, including initiatives to improve job-training skills, technology in classrooms and fuel-efficiency standards in trucks.

The approach, outlined in a speech that ran more than a hour, reflects the White House’s conclusion that Obama spent too much time last year in conflict with recalcitrant lawmakers, rather than using the unilateral powers in his grasp.

But the go-it-mostly-alone strategy risks further irking Congress and resting part of his legacy on executive actions that do not have the permanence, or breadth, of major legislation.

The more executive-style presidency scores high with the public after years of political deadlock in Washington. It also marks a refiguring of Brand Obama, the politician who promised to govern more modestly and cooperatively with the opposition after the polarizing years of the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.

In his fifth State of the Union address, Obama set that aside.

By declaring his intention to ignore Congress when necessary as lawmakers looked on, the president framed an election-year debate about which party is more determined to solve the nation’s enduring economic problems.

He called his ideas “a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.”

“Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you,” he said. “But America does not stand still — and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

The speech revealed Obama’s frustration about his lack of progress in key areas, and the diminishing time left to secure his legacy after a largely lost year. He scolded Congress for last year’s 16-day government shutdown, saying the paralysis showed that “we are not doing right by the American people.”

He called on Congress to take up gun control again after defeating his proposals to restrict sales last year; help close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay; and refrain from working to repeal the Affordable Care Act after dozens of unsuccessful attempts.

Obama’s speech showed just how much the “hope and change” he promised in his 2008 campaign has been honed down by years of inevitable partisan conflict, replaced by the narrower ambitions on display Tuesday night.

The core of the speech was a series of specific policy prescriptions to address the tenuous condition of the United States’ middle class and the disparity in opportunity that economic imbalances have opened. His tone was populist, if not overtly partisan.

By using executive action to address global warming, economic policies such as the minimum wage, and other issues important to the Democratic base and to independent voters, Obama will seek throughout the year to contrast his approach with the inaction in Congress.

The strategy could help Democrats, who are a long shot to take the House and in jeopardy of losing the Senate. But in some of the conservative states where Democrats need to do well in November, the perception of a presidential end-run around Congress could do more harm than good to the party’s candidates.

The White House thinks the pressure Obama will be able to apply to Republicans through executive actions could pay off in legislative progress. Fearing an obstructionist label, Republicans might decide it is better to act in concert with the president on some issues, such as immigration and infrastructure spending, than not to act at all.

With his insistence Tuesday night that he will sidestep Congress if necessary, Obama placed himself in many ways against the institution, not just his most ardent Republican opponents.

It is, in one clear way, safe political ground: Only 16 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll published this week.

Obama’s join-or-be-left-behind threat, though, could discourage the few moderate Republicans in Congress from working with the administration over the course of a campaign year.

The consequence could be a legislative record even slimmer than last year’s, when he managed to secure only a small fraction of his State of the Union initiatives. And after this one he has only two such speeches left, played out against the backdrop of waning public attention to his presidency.

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