Narratives of State of the Union focus on old themes, finger-pointing

Supporters and foes of Obama agree only on the reality of Capitol Hill gridlock as they fight bitterly over the economy

The president hopes to bypass Congress altogether as he attempts to reach political goals after a bruising 2013.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama will work with Congress where he can and circumvent lawmakers where he must, his top advisers warned on the Sunday talk shows in previewing Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

Obama faces a politically divided Congress and will use his annual speech to demand expanded economic opportunity. Absent legislative action, the White House is telling lawmakers that the president is ready to take unilateral action to close the gap between rich and poor Americans.

“I think the way we have to think about this year is we have a divided government,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a longtime Obama adviser. “The Republican Congress is not going to rubber-stamp the president's agenda. The president is not going to sign the Republican Congress’ agenda.”

So the White House is eyeing compromise on some priorities, Obama advisers said. And the president is looking at executive orders that can be issued without congressional approval after a year when little seemed to go right for him — the troubled implementation of the new health care law, leaks revealing the extent of the nation’s domestic spying apparatus and a failure to make progress on a number of 2013 goals, including gun control and comprehensive immigration reform.

Pfeiffer said the speech would emphasize the need to revive a stagnating economy and, if necessary, bypassing an obstructionist Congress with proposals that can pursued without them.

“I think we need to assure the American people that we can get something done, either through Congress or on our own because what they want are answers,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Pfeiffer said that president has “a pen and a phone” at his disposal, meaning that Obama can sign executive orders and use his influence to try to rally the American people against Republicans at the polls.

His remarks built on a Saturday email he sent to Obama supporters, saying “when American jobs and livelihoods depend on getting something done, he will not wait for Congress.”  

Last year he successfully sidestepped Congress when he issued a number of recess appointments — including for positions at the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — and a series of presidential orders on climate change.

But Republicans who appeared on the Sunday shows were upset by the suggestion that Obama might skirt the legislative process, which remains their best avenue for opposing the president’s agenda.

“It sounds vaguely like a threat, and I think it also has a certain amount of arrogance in the sense that one of the fundamental principles of our country were the checks and balances that it wasn’t supposed to be easy to pass legislation,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

“It’s hard to convince people to get legislation through. It takes consensus. But that’s what he needs to be doing is building consensus and not taking his pen and creating law,” he said.

Passing a major agenda item with bipartisan support has largely eluded Obama since Democrats lost the House in the 2010 midterm elections. Few expect that to change in 2014, with the possible exception of an immigration reform bill.

While the president’s plan for reform has already passed the Senate, the Republican-led House has yet to take up the measure. Recent murmurs on Capitol Hill suggest House Speaker John Boehner and his Republican colleagues may be amenable to re-examining a bill, albeit with a number of changes.

Republican lawmakers said on Sunday that they would be willing to work with the White House on smaller points of agreement. Paul suggested, for example, that Congress could move forward on portions of an immigration overhaul if it were not for Democrats’ demanding an all-or-nothing approach to granting citizenship.

It’s the economy, stupid

The political climate today echoes the 1992 election season, when Bill Clinton challenged the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush. The Clinton campaign focused on the economy, health care and the need for change, and today the talking points are similar. This time, however, the Republicans are following Clinton’s campaign playbook, with attacks on Obama over the stagnant economy and the Affordable Care Act while they advocate a new, smaller government.

For Democrats, Obama’s State of the Union address will be a chance to illustrate how declining wages, a tepid economy and rising inequality are a testament to the failure of Republican theories on taxation that favor the wealthy and a preference for balancing budgets over building infrastructure.

Without going into specifics, Pfeiffer previewed Tuesday's speech by saying that Obama is “going to move forward in areas like job training, education, manufacturing on his own to try to restore opportunity for American families.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said, “So we’re going to focus on some specific things that we think have support even among tea party rank and file like raising the minimum wage, like making college more affordable to middle class families, like creating jobs by infrastructure growth.” 

In opposing the president’s agenda, however, Republicans evoked the Reagan-era mantra of government’s being not the solution but the problem.

They said that income inequality and the slow post-financial-crisis recovery are the result high taxes, too much regulation and a massive federal debt, all of which they place squarely on Obama’s shoulders.

“I don’t think in this jobless recovery we ought to be doing things that create fewer jobs,” said Republican Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on “Fox News Sunday.”

“We ought to be doing things that create more jobs,” he said in arguing against a Democratic plan to raise the country’s minimum wage.

He also said that while he would like to see unemployment benefits for over 1.6 million unemployed American restored after they lapsed last month, his party was unwilling to do so without offsets in government spending elsewhere.

“His economic policies are not working,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” He added that “economic growth is my No. 1 priority.”

Don’t forget health care

The president’s health care law remained a strong talking point as well, with Republicans who tied it to a shuttering of the government in October calling it a job killer and Democrats defending its fundamentals after a botched implementation that tarnished its initial appeal.

In his remarks Sunday, Cruz, urged Obama to use his State of the Union address as a forum for issuing an unlikely national apology to the American people.

“Millions of people across the country have seen why we were standing and fighting, because ‘Obamacare’ is a disaster,” he said.

But Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said that despite political fallout from the law’s embarrassing launch, it remained a point of pride for Obama and an issue he would continue to defend despite its risky politics.

“It is absolutely worth it, no matter what happens politically,” said Carney on ABC’s “This Week.”

Missing in action

Registering barely a peep on the narrative-setting for Tuesday’s speech were major issues like the historic interim agreement with Iran on its nuclear program, the ongoing brutality of a Syrian civil war about to enter its third year and the administration’s strategic shift to Asia as its tries to reduce its military footprint in the Middle East.

Also missing was the debate about the national security state and mass data collection and surveillance of millions of Americans who are not suspected of any criminal activities.

But in an election year at a time of rising income disparity, foreign policy and surveillance are areas with less resonance for voters more concerned with wages and mortgage payments than diplomacy and civil liberties.

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