President Obama didn’t exactly break up with Congress last night, but he let lawmakers know he thinks they need to spend more time apart.
Delivering his State of the Union address, Obama struck the tone of a man who has, for all practical purposes, given up on getting Congress to cooperate with him on his domestic agenda and is focused instead on moving forward, to whatever extent he can, on executive authority alone.
The president spent considerable time discussing domestic issues including unemployment, income inequality, and education, but as he ticked off the list of issues on which he says he is planning to act unilaterally, he sounded at times like a passive-aggressive spouse getting in as many digs as possible at a less-than-helpful partner.
Announcing a new administration program aimed at connecting the long-term unemployed with job training, he added a throwaway line about what lawmakers could do “if Congress wants to help” and referred to the unemployment insurance extension “that you let expire last month.”
Discussing the need for guaranteed pre-Kindergarten education for every American child, which he has repeatedly asked Congress to fund without success, he discussed efforts the states have made on their own and said, “As Congress decides what it’s going to do, I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need.”
Laying out his plan for a new retirement savings vehicle for low-income workers, the president added, “And if this Congress wants to help, work with me to fix an upside-down tax code that gives big tax breaks to help the wealthy save, but does little to nothing for middle-class Americans.”
On the question of raising the minimum wage, which Obama has repeatedly asked Congress to raise, he elected to talk past the assembled lawmakers completely, saying, “To every mayor, governor, and state legislator in America, I say, you don’t have to wait for Congress to act; Americans will support you if you take this on.”
Unfortunately, it’s not clear just how much change the president can bring about without Congressional support.
During the speech, Obama mentioned his efforts, supported by a number of large companies, including AT&T, Lockheed Martin, Xerox, and others, to prevent discrimination against the long-term unemployed when making hiring decisions.
The pledge is largely symbolic, however, as there is no enforcement mechanism. In public comments in advance of the speech, a Xerox spokesperson said that in signing the pledge that company was merely affirming its existing policy.
On the issue of the minimum wage, the President announced that he would use his executive authority to require all new and re-negotiated federal contracts guarantee employees a minimum of $10.10 per hour, nearly 40 percent more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25.
While the requirement will be a tremendous benefit for the low-paid workers hired by government contractors, the absolute number of people affected is relatively small. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012, only 4.7 percent of workers paid an hourly wage earned the federal minimum or less. The percentage of those employed by federal contractors is unknown, but is surely only a small fraction.
The president’s remarks were delivered on the same day that a poll conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News found Americans to be overwhelmingly negative in their assessment of the state of the country. And though Obama’s speech was rhetorically powerful at times, its content provided a good indication of why people feel that way.
When disagreement in Washington, he said “prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy – when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States – then we are not doing right by the American people.”
Obama seemed reenergized when the focus of his remarks turned from domestic policy to foreign policy.
Celebrating the winding down of America’s military presence in Afghanistan, he said, “Together with our allies, we will complete our mission there by the end of this year, and America’s longest war will finally be over.”
He issued a powerful defense of the administration’s negotiations with Iran, aimed at preventing the Iranians from developing a nuclear weapon. Members of Congress from both parties have objected to the lifting of some sanctions on Iran in exchange for progress.
“The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible,” he said. “But let me be clear: If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”
Obama gave short shrift to a pair of contentious issues. On the question of the administration’s use of drone attacks, he said only that he had approved “prudent limits” on their use. With regard to the controversial surveillance of electronic communications of both Americans and foreign nationals, he said, “I will reform our surveillance programs – because the vital work of our intelligence community depends on public confidence, here and abroad, that the privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.”
Obama wrapped up the speech with the inspiring story of Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg, an Army Ranger severely wounded by roadside bomb during his tenth deployment to Afghanistan.
With Remsburg and his father sitting in the audience with First Lady Michelle Obama, the president held up his struggle to recover from serious brain injuries as an example for the country to follow.
“[M]en and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy,” he said. “Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged. But for more than two hundred years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress – to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice, and fairness, and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.”
Delivering the official Republican response to the president’s speech, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Washington, said that Republicans have alternative plans to deal with many of the concerns the president raise, but provided little or no detail. Playing off the president’s own request to make 2014 a “year of action,” she said, “We hope the president will join us in a year of real action by empowering people not by making their lives harder with unprecedented spending, higher taxes, and fewer jobs.”
McMorris Rodgers was one of a number of Republicans who delivered responses to Obama’s speech. Speaking on behalf of a Tea Party group, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah said, “Americans know in their hearts that something is wrong. Much of what is wrong relates to the sense that the 'American Dream' is falling out of reach for far too many of us. ... We are facing an inequality crisis — one to which the president has paid lip-service, but seems uninterested in truly confronting or correcting."
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio), who spent the entire speech seated behind Obama and whose expression vacillated between a blank stare and annoyed grimace, said afterward, “After five years, President Obama is clearly out of ideas. With few bipartisan proposals, Americans heard a president more interested in advancing ideology than in solving the problems regular folks are talking about.”
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