For the past week, the Obama administration has been sending out a series of faux-personalized emails from the White House email account, purportedly written by senior staffers, in an effort to create a sense of excitement about the State of the Union address tomorrow night.
“President Obama wanted you to know this” was the subject line of one email, sent under the name of White House senior advisor Dan Pfeiffer on Saturday. Beginning with the chatty opening “Hey” – the email described how, “every year, the phone rings off the hook with everyone” (read: the media) “trying to figure out what will be in the president’s address.”
Not this year, Pfeiffer explained in the email: “The President wanted you to get the first preview of what this speech is all about.”
Of course, the email delivered no such thing. Recipients learned that the speech will be optimistic! The president will urge Congress to take action! That it will be about creating opportunity! But there were no actual proposals.
However, when – as indeed does happen every year – the wire services were given a preview of what the speech would contain, their stories made clear one possible reason for Pfeiffer’s reticence: He didn’t have a whole lot to write about.
Faced with a Republican-controlled House whose opposition to almost every White House proposal now appears Pavlovian, Obama had a rough 2013 legislatively. Not much of substance passed, the government was shut down over the debt ceiling, and one of the single victories was the simple act of passing a budget.
Going into an election year in which his party stands a good chance of losing control of the Senate, Obama can’t risk tying public perceptions of his effectiveness as president to a legislature that has shown little interest in passing bills he supports.
As a result, administration officials are highlighting the coming speech as discussion of things the administration believes it can do without Congressional assistance. The president’s ongoing theme of addressing income inequality will still take center stage.
Appearing on Fox News Sunday yesterday, Pfeiffer told host Chris Wallace that the president would offer, “concrete, practical and specific proposals for how we restore equality,” but said the president is “not going to wait” for Congress to act, and would do what he can through executive action if necessary.
In the end, however, the majority of issues facing the country right now requires Congressional action. And no matter how much the president promises to work around a recalcitrant Congress, his ability to effect real change solely through executive action amounts to tinkering around the edges.
Here are the seven main things the president will address in the State of the Union tomorrow:
Immigration reform. If the administration has any hopes for a legislative achievement, they are pinned on overhauling immigration rules. “On immigration reform, we’re actually optimistic that 2014 will be the year that Congress delivers to the president’s desk a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that meets the principles he laid out and that he can sign into law,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said on This Week with George Stephanopoulos yesterday. Republicans are expected to issue a set of “principles” this week that could open the door to a legislative compromise.
Passing a farm bill. By any real measure, this doesn’t count as a legislative “achievement,” but the president will call for it anyway, and he may get what he wants. The huge bill, which covers agriculture subsidies, food stamps, and myriad other issues has been hung up in Congress for two years, despite its historically bipartisan nature. The House, though, is reportedly close to an agreement, setting up a possible Senate vote next month.
Extending unemployment insurance. Again, this requires legislation, but even if it’s passed, it can’t really be described as a victory. Congress has never before, with persistent long-term unemployment at current rates, failed to maintain a program of extended unemployment insurance. Republican opposition to the extension has prevented passage so far, but recent moves by high-profile Republicans to soften the party’s image on income inequality and compassion for the poor may leave a door open to resolution.
Raising the debt limit. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew last week warned the government will hit the limit of its borrowing authority at the end of February. The debt limit needs to be raised in order to fund the two-year budget that both houses of Congress have already passed, but House Republicans have indicated that they will not allow that to happen without at least some sort of nod toward deficit reduction. Obama has won condition-free debt limit increases in the last two go-rounds with House Republicans, but given comments by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday, the outcome of the next installment in this ongoing drama is unclear.
Raising the minimum wage. Obama has made income inequality the signature issue of his second term, and raising the federal minimum wage, currently set at $7.25 per hour, is one of his key talking points. However, Republicans argue that raising the minimum wage will actually reduce the number of jobs available. Their opposition to the move is firm and appears unlikely to waver.
Universal Pre-Kindergarten programs. The president would like to see Congress fund early education programs that guarantee every child in America the chance to receive pre-Kindergarten instruction. The proposal has little chance in Congress, and Obama is expected to redirect some education funding toward this effort.
Infrastructure spending. Infrastructure – everybody loves it. Spending – lots of people hate it. The country’s infrastructure is in disrepair, and with interest rates at historic lows, many argue that this is the time to invest in the public projects that help businesses make money. Obama has been making this case for some years now, but Republicans want a “pay for” in order not to increase federal spending. Barring an unprecedented exercise of executive authority, the president can do little to boost infrastructure investment without congressional agreement.
While some of the issues might arguably be addressed by executive action, the vast majority will require Congress to act in concert with the president. With a mid-term election on the horizon, the odds of that happening seem poor, at best.
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