Almost two decades ago, Bill Clinton stood before the nation and declared that "the era of big government is over." Tuesday night, President Obama proclaimed himself the Big Man on Campus.
The contrast was stark: Obama's Democratic predecessor used the language of restraint. This president, on the other hand, spoke of doing more in a campaign-themed "Year of Action"—and doing it on his own.
The White House is gambling with this new message, betting that a public disheartened by years of gridlock and distrustful of government will welcome a president vowing to act unilaterally, particularly to help the economy. Obama's team is hoping, guessing, that the public won't fear him.
It's a risk—one the White House may not fully appreciate. As one frustrated Democratic strategist put it: "People are suspicious of executive power, so you have to tread carefully."
But worse yet for Obama, whether he realizes it or not, is the effect this approach could have on Democrats trying to hold onto the Senate. Indeed, while the White House aims to demonstrate that this president remains large and in charge (and aims to boost his flagging stock as a result), the tactic poses a not insignificant chance of denigrating the role of Congress, and by extension the Senate Democrats fighting to preserve his party's majority rule. Obama may end up hurting that cause more than helping it.
"There is some evidence that the American people are tired of the bickering and want to figure out a way of moving forward together," said William Galston, the former Clinton adviser now at the Brookings Institution. Obama's go-it-alone message, he said, could instead sound to the public like an admission that he's thrown in the towel and given up on trying to work with an admittedly obstructionist GOP.
The belief inside the White House that Obama needs to show a more aggressive side may be a misread of the political environment, said Galston, who attributes Obama's slide in popularity both to the stop-and-start recovery and problems with the Affordable Care Act. The latter means that voters may be wary about Obama's pledge to do more. "There is an enormous amount of skepticism about the ability of government to advance its ends," he said.
Polls show the president is facing a credibility deficit at the very moment he is asking the nation to have faith in his ability to act without Congress. "He's going to have trouble asking for that level of trust," said Republican pollster Bill McInturff. "He's on shaky ground." McInturff helped conduct the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, released Tuesday, which showed that almost 70 percent of Americans now believe the country is stagnant or worse off than when Obama took office.
The White House knows this, but seems unable to accept it. Prior to his address, Obama's aides were quick to note that despite their push to rebrand 2014 as a year of executive action, the big-ticket items such as immigration reform and hiking the minimum wage will still have to go through Congress. It's resulted in some mixed messaging: The president can do a lot—but only just so much.
The risk is that the public Tuesday night heard one message but not the other—and walked away with an inflated sense of what a president can do. Obama's bold talk may then be followed by orders that can impact the economy only at the margins, further damaging his credibility if the results are tepid—and dragging Democrats down with him. (And the one job-creator that Republicans want him to approve via executive fiat—the Keystone pipeline—is locked in limbo.)
At the same time, he's handed the GOP talking points that line up with its never-ending attempt to paint him as a big-government tyrant—talking points that they are already deploying in key Senate battleground races.
"It's dangerous for them," said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The committee has blasted out regional releases claiming that Obama's executive pledge means: "Congress doesn't matter. Democrats like Mark Warner, Kay Hagan, Mark Begich don't matter. Your vote doesn't matter. I run the show."
Dayspring called Obama's message "strange, considering the map Democrats face" in 2014, one loaded with contests that play to moderates in states such as Alaska, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Virginia. A Washington Post poll released this week asked voters whether the president should use executive action to accomplish its goals. An overwhelming majority of Democrats said yes (and Republicans, no), but independents were split 49 percent to 49 percent on the question.
Sure, the White House doesn't much care about what conservatives think, but one Democratic Hill aide conceded the administration's rhetoric has alienated some Senate Democrats who don't like to be painted by the same brush as the House intransigents, noting how the White House now tends to use "Congress" and "Republicans" interchangeably. To them, "it's a huge slap in the face."
But other Democrats on the Hill and elsewhere believe Congress merits the White House's enmity—and that the president should be doing all he can within his constitutional power if legislation is stalled. This isn't 1996, Clinton is long gone, and the modern-day GOP has somehow made the Gingrich-era party look reasonable by comparison. "There's a lot more upside than downside for the president," says Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist J.J. Balaban. "The president may get credit with both his base and the middle for getting things done in the face of a Washington most Americans find deeply dysfunctional."
Maybe. Still, Jeff Link, a Democratic consultant in Iowa, doubts the president's remarks will impact the 2014 races in any way, especially in his state, where there are three seats up for grabs. He noted that Obama on Tuesday night was going up against a basketball game pitting the University of Iowa against highly-ranked Michigan State.
The president, he said, would literally be tuned out—another problem the White House is facing on increasingly wider scale. "This is the best Hawkeye team in years," Link said. "Most TVs in Iowa will be watching the game."
Obama's State of the Union Address in 90 Seconds
This article appears in the February 1, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Threatening His Majority.