WASHINGTON – Count 2014 as the year President Barack Obama’s agenda went from bold to bite-sized.
The president’s State of the Union address Tuesday was an amalgam of modest proposals designed to chip away at some of the same problems he’s been working on all along: persistent unemployment, middle-class insecurity, lagging schools and more.
“Let’s make this a year of action,” Obama exhorted members of Congress arrayed before him. “That’s what most Americans want – for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.
But coming off a year in which his major legislative proposals largely fell flat, Obama already was putting Plan B in play, too.
Where Congress won’t cooperate, Obama aims to find creative ways to act more frequently on his own, through executive orders, regulatory action, presidential cajoling and the like.
“Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” he declared.
There is plenty Obama can do on his own. But creativity is no substitute for clout.
And an executive order on job training, wages or retirement security doesn’t have the zing of an $800 billion stimulus plan or a historic overhaul of the health care system.
Obama isn’t closing off further congressional action: He renewed his calls for legislation on immigration reform, extending unemployment benefits, boosting the minimum wage for all workers and bolstering preschool programs. And he added new items to his congressional wish list, including a call to expand the earned income tax credit to workers without children.
But Obama knows congressional Republicans are even less likely to cooperate this year than they were in 2013, which has largely been written off as a lost year. And that knowledge is giving him a new sense of urgency.
The White House announced Obama’s first new unilateral action – raising the minimum wage for newly hired federal contract workers – even before he began speaking.
It quickly drew derision from Republicans. House Speaker John Boehner stressed that the change would affect only new contracts and predicted the number of workers affected would be “somewhere close to zero.”
Still, small steps may be a better fit for these times than grand legislative proposals that would likely stall.
The economy is better, even if not everyone’s feeling it yet. The unemployment rate is lower, even if 6.7 percent still isn’t great. The health care law is taking effect, even if it’s causing heartburn for plenty of Americans.
The president had a fine line to walk in his speech: projecting the optimism and energy that dispirited members of his party, and the public at large, are hungry for without overpromising at a time when his influence is sure to wane.
“This can be a breakthrough year for America,” he declared.
Obama tempered that optimistic assessment with an open question to lawmakers: “The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress.”
With Congress unlikely to deal on most issues, Obama must keep expectations low, without putting people into a funk.
If they’re not already there, that is.
Polls show people are pessimistic about the country’s direction and the condition of the economy. Seventy percent think unemployment will stay the same or get worse in the next year.
As for Obama himself, “both his supporters and his opponents are worried that he has lost his enthusiasm and his energy for the political contest,” said Calvin Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University.
Jillson pointed to Obama’s own comments in a recent interview that he’s “overexposed” and that it’s natural for people to want something new “after six, seven years of me being on the national stage.”
But Obama insists that with three more years in the Oval Office, he’s still passionate about the issues that matter.
In his speech, he sketched a vision of an America where “honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us.”
The speech was an opportunity to try to restore the public’s confidence in that vision of America – in a pragmatic, bite-sized kind of way.
Nancy Benac has covered government and politics for The Associated Press for more than three decades.