President Barack Obama’s patience with Congress is at an end. Or so he and his aides made it appear before his State of the Union address this week. The talk emanating from the White House was of executive action to boost the economy and fight inequality — measures the president could take unilaterally. This will be a “year of action,” we were told; look out for the presidential pen and the presidential phone. In response, various Republican lawmakers warned Obama not to threaten; invoking Montesquieu, Sen. Rand Paul, Ky., said “a form of tyranny” might be afoot.
When the inevitable partisan preliminaries gave way to the actual speech, however, Obama’s tone was relatively nonconfrontational. And if his proposals for executive action did not live up to the hype, they also did not justify the fear-mongering. The most significant of them, a $10.10 per hour minimum wage for all workers on federal contracts, affects a sliver of the U.S. workforce and applies only to future contracts. The rest were either familiar (more “manufacturing institutes”), hollow (a summit on working families), promising but vague (a new starter savings account) or harmless (yet another review of federal training programs). If that’s all there is to it, future historians may look back on Obama’s “year of action” as neither transformational nor tyrannical but rather, at most, moderately helpful to his larger agenda.
Far from dictating to Congress, Obama repeatedly acknowledged the necessity of legislative support for his agenda. Indeed, he invited it. Two items on his list — extended unemployment benefits and a higher minimum wage for all workers — should receive support but, in the Republican-controlled House, probably won’t.
Others, though, have at least a chance at passage: updating patent law, authority to pursue tariff-slashing trade deals in Asia and Europe and Obama’s welcome pitch for housing finance reform all should win some GOP backing. The president proposed expanding the earned-income tax credit to include childless workers, which would improve work incentives and lift many single men and women out of poverty. This idea also has the virtue, politically, of taking what was originally a GOP program and reshaping it in a way that’s at least not inconsistent with recent anti-poverty proposals from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. If Republicans are serious about their avowed concern for poverty and inequality, they’ll take the president up on this proposal. Immigration reform is another area where both parties should be able to find common ground.
Entitlements and a cure for America’s long-term fiscal imbalance, once ostensibly key Obama concerns, no longer rank as priorities. And in a speech devoted overwhelmingly to domestic issues, Obama spent just enough time on foreign policy to demonstrate again his determination to limit U.S. commitments in the Middle East. He stressed the end of U.S. military interventions, particularly in Afghanistan, and he vowed to veto any move by Congress to sanction Iran pending his top priority, negotiations on its nuclear programs. He had little to say about ongoing turmoil in Egypt and even less about growing tensions in East Asia.
If the Republicans think their political interest lies in rejecting everything Obama favors, as their political base sometimes seems to prefer, they could easily find material in the president’s speech, and in the attitude the White House projected prior to it, to justify that stance.
On the other hand, if they prefer to pursue tangible achievements, the president has laid out several opportunities that don’t involve betraying party principle. Given that the government is divided, and that the Constitution precludes either legislative or executive dictatorship, cooperation across party lines is the only sensible course.