Obama opens his sixth year with some of the worst job approval ratings since he took office and with a bitterly divided Congress already turning much of its focus to the November election.
The White House will use the high-profile speech to try anew for momentum for the president’s agenda — and perhaps his legacy — as he declares 2014 a “year of action” with or without congressional support.
Widening income gap
Obama is expected to make the widening income gap between rich and poor a centerpiece of his speech, calling on lawmakers to restore jobless benefits for 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans, expand preschool initiatives and boost the federal minimum wage.
Obama said recently he planned to use the address to “mobilize the country around the national mission of making sure our economy offers every American who works hard a fair shot at success.”
Republicans expect Obama to throw “the kitchen sink” of federal programs in the speech before both chambers of Congress in hopes of firing up the liberal base for this year’s congressional elections, said Ron Bonjean, a Republican consultant and former aide in the House of Representatives. “This is all about politics for the elections.”
The White House is taking a campaign-style approach to the speech itself: turning its Instagram account into a photo album of State of the Union preparation, including photos of drafts of the speech and Obama’s meetings with speechwriter Cody Keenan. And it announced that he will hold a post-speech “virtual” tour Friday on Google, answering questions from around the country on topics from his speech.
Millions will watch
Tens of millions are expected to watch the 6 p.m. address, which Obama will deliver from the U.S. Capitol; House Republican Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state, a rising star in her party, will deliver the GOP response.
The president is also expected to defend his signature health care law, sullied by the chaotic website rollout and a broken promise that Americans could keep their insurance plans. Republicans already are campaigning against vulnerable Democrats for supporting the law, but Obama is likely to tout that more than 3 million have successfully signed up.
The speech comes as another debt ceiling limit looms. A rare bipartisan budget deal in December that broke two years of near-constant budget brinksmanship sparked some optimism, and Obama is expected to call for some congressional compromises.
A robust agenda
“It would be taken as a negative sign for the president if he didn’t put a reasonably robust legislative agenda out there,” said William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton who’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research center. “I think he has to push back against the perception that he’s given up on anything but administrative action, and he’d be wise to lead with some items where there’s evidence of movement toward bipartisanship.”
That could include efforts to boost spending on infrastructure and a rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws — an issue Obama has been touting since before he was president but that has stalled in Congress.
Robert Lehrman, a former speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore who teaches at American University in Washington, said people often dismiss the State of the Union as “empty rhetoric,” but it’s actually a substantive policy speech. He cites a study that shows modern presidents have used the address to ask for a laundry list of requests from Congress — a median of 31 requests since 1965. Of those, about 40 percent of the requests get adopted.
Going it alone
Still, in recent weeks, Obama has made it clear he plans to go it alone when he can’t get congressional buy-in, using the power of the White House — a “pen” to sign executive orders and a “phone” to rally support.
“Where Congress is debating things and hasn’t been able to pull the trigger on stuff, my administration is going to move forward,” he told a group of mayors Thursday night. “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone. And that’s all I need.”
The enhanced focus on using the full extent of Obama’s authority to circumvent Congress comes as John Podesta, a former Clinton chief of staff, returns to the White House as a counselor to the president.
Podesta, whose White House portfolio includes energy and climate change, co-authored a 2010 report on executive powers at his former think tank, the Center for American Progress, saying executive powers present “a real opportunity for the Obama administration to turn its focus away from a divided Congress and the unappetizing process of making legislative sausage.”
Obama came into office four years ago critical of the use of power by his predecessor, President George W. Bush. But in his second term, he has grown more comfortable trying to move his agenda forward, particularly when an often-hostile Congress gets in his way.
The president is also likely to talk about a host of pressing international worries: gains by al-Qaida-allied groups in Iraq, the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year, and a rocky start to efforts to broker peace between the government of Syria and its opposition.
He also may look to push for special trade-promotion authority known as “fast track,” which he wants in order to limit congressional debate and force quick votes on a big new trade pact; but he’s facing pushback from even Democrats.
And he may call on Congress to give the administration space to negotiate with Iran, which this week started suspending some uranium enrichment as part of a deal to curb its nuclear ambitions. Some lawmakers are pushing for more sanctions against the country, but Obama has threatened to use a rare veto on that legislation.
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