Obama Won’t ‘Stand Still’ and Wait for Congress

National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
Jan. 28, 2014, 6:39 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama, seek­ing to re­bound from a rough year and fa­cing an em­boldened op­pos­i­tion in Con­gress, sought Tues­day night to rally the coun­try be­hind him for a flurry of ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tions he prom­ised would strengthen eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery and pro­tect the middle class.

In his fifth State of the Uni­on ad­dress, the pres­id­ent in 1 hour and 11 minutes tried to cast him­self less as a par­tis­an than as the one lead­er in Wash­ing­ton look­ing out for the whole coun­try. He in­sisted he was not look­ing for a fight with Re­pub­lic­ans, who con­trol the House and spent much of 2013 block­ing his agenda. Not­ing that some of his pro­pos­als need con­gres­sion­al ac­tion, he in­sisted, “I’m eager to work with you.”

“Amer­ica does not stand still — and neither will I,” he said. “So wherever I can take steps without le­gis­la­tion to ex­pand op­por­tun­ity for more Amer­ic­an fam­il­ies, that’s what I’m go­ing to do.” Demo­crats erup­ted in ap­plause, but House Speak­er John Boehner, dir­ectly be­hind the pres­id­ent, re­mained seated and stone-faced.

Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans showed their dis­ap­prov­al of the pres­id­ent’s agenda by largely with­hold­ing their ap­plause. Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell or­ches­trated a rap­id re­sponse to the ad­dress, blast­ing out five emails throughout the speech and jab­bing Obama over the Key­stone XL pipeline, coal in Ken­tucky, and the job mar­ket for col­lege gradu­ates.

Sev­er­al GOP law­makers walk­ing back to the Sen­ate after the speech said they heard areas of pos­sible agree­ment, but some said they are not im­pressed with Obama’s de­term­in­a­tion to go around Con­gress where he can.

“The pres­id­ent has to deal with Con­gress wheth­er he’s happy to or not,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Rep. Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers, the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence chair, later gave the of­fi­cial Re­pub­lic­an re­sponse, cham­pi­on­ing what she con­ten­ded is “a more hope­ful Re­pub­lic­an vis­ion.” She also took the ob­lig­at­ory GOP poke at Obama’s health care law, de­clar­ing that “it is not work­ing” — a strong con­trast to Obama’s en­dorse­ment of the law.

Though the audi­ence for the ad­dress has de­clined stead­ily since Obama drew 48 mil­lion view­ers in 2010, Tues­day’s tele­vi­sion view­er­ship was ex­pec­ted to ap­proach or match last year’s 33 mil­lion. Al­most cer­tainly it was the largest audi­ence he will get this year, and the White House was de­term­ined to take ad­vant­age of it to bounce back from a year of sag­ging pop­ular­ity and the troubled Obama­care rol­lout.

In the speech, Obama offered a series of mod­est pro­pos­als, be­fit­ting a pres­id­ent en­ter­ing his sixth year in of­fice. Bunched un­der the rub­ric of “op­por­tun­ity for all,” they in­cluded many items on the pro­gress­ive wish list: an in­crease in the min­im­um wage, help for the un­em­ployed, pro­tec­tion of vot­ing rights, high­er fuel-ef­fi­ciency stand­ards for trucks, more aid for edu­ca­tion, re­mov­ing some sub­sidies for the rich, more spend­ing on in­fra­struc­ture, an as­sault on in­come in­equal­ity, a pro­gram for cli­mate change, and an end to dis­crim­in­a­tion against gays. As he did in last year’s ad­dress, he also prod­ded Con­gress to move on com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form and over­haul the fed­er­al tax code, spe­cific­ally clos­ing sec­tions that re­ward com­pan­ies for mov­ing Amer­ic­an jobs over­seas.

He also gave a stout de­fense of his em­battled health care law, even gently mock­ing House Re­pub­lic­ans for their dozens of ef­forts to re­peal the law in part or com­pletely. “Let’s not have an­oth­er forty-something votes to re­peal a law that’s already help­ing mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans.”¦ The first 40 were plenty. We all owe it to the Amer­ic­an people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against,” he said.

Obama was less en­thused when he touched on trade, an is­sue on which he loses many Demo­crats in Con­gress, who es­pouse more pro­tec­tion­ist meas­ures. On this, the pres­id­ent sided more with the busi­ness com­munity and main­stream Re­pub­lic­an policy, ur­ging the Con­gress to give him the trade pro­mo­tion au­thor­ity he has re­ques­ted. It is needed, he said, “to pro­tect our work­ers, pro­tect our en­vir­on­ment and open new mar­kets to new goods stamped “˜Made in the U.S.A.’ China and Europe aren’t stand­ing on the side­lines. Neither should we.”

His most de­fi­ant mo­ment with Con­gress came when he strongly re­peated his threat to veto any­thing Con­gress passes that slaps new sanc­tions on Ir­an and in­ter­feres with Amer­ic­an dip­lo­mat­ic ef­forts to get Ir­an to halt its nuc­le­ar pro­gram.

“Let me be clear,” he said. “If this Con­gress sends me a new sanc­tions bill now that threatens to de­rail these talks, I will veto it…. We must give dip­lomacy a chance to suc­ceed.”

A year after he de­voted a large seg­ment of his ad­dress to gun con­trol — and only three days after a gun­man opened fire in a mall only 30 miles away from the Cap­it­al — the pres­id­ent had only one brief para­graph on the sub­ject, de­cry­ing “the lives that gun vi­ol­ence steals from us each day.” He pledged “to keep try­ing, with or without Con­gress, to help stop more tra­gedies from vis­it­ing in­no­cent Amer­ic­ans in our movie theat­ers, and our shop­ping malls, or schools like Sandy Hook.”


Go­ing Big on Gas

Ig­nor­ing en­vir­on­ment­al­ists who are ur­ging him to op­pose all fossil-fuel pro­duc­tion, Obama doubled down on his sup­port for nat­ur­al gas, call­ing it “the bridge fuel that can power our eco­nomy with less car­bon pol­lu­tion that causes cli­mate change.”

Obama re­peated the “all of the above” man­tra that lead­ers of most of the na­tion’s ma­jor en­vir­on­ment­al groups have urged him to drop. “The all-of-the-above en­ergy strategy I an­nounced a few years ago is work­ing, and today, Amer­ica is closer to en­ergy in­de­pend­ence than we’ve been in dec­ades,” he said.

The pres­id­ent’s full-throttled en­dorse­ment of nat­ur­al gas — both as an eco­nom­ic driver and as a tool to cut car­bon emis­sions — re­ceived the most at­ten­tion in what was a re­l­at­ively minor fo­cus on en­ergy and cli­mate is­sues com­pared with those of his pre­vi­ous speeches to Con­gress.

Obama men­tioned only in passing — and not by name — the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency’s reg­u­la­tions to cut car­bon emis­sions from the na­tion’s power plants. He also didn’t say any­thing about his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­fense of those rules, which are already fa­cing at­tacks from con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans and in­dustry groups. The pres­id­ent did tout the growth in sol­ar power, however. “Every four minutes, an­oth­er Amer­ic­an home or busi­ness goes sol­ar,” he said.

Much of what Obama talked about on en­ergy and en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues he has already done or an­nounced, in­clud­ing tough­er fuel-ef­fi­ciency stand­ards for trucks. Left un­men­tioned in the speech was any talk of wind en­ergy, bio­fuels, nuc­le­ar power (not to be con­fused with nuc­le­ar weapons, which Obama did speak of), coal, and the Key­stone XL pipeline.


En­roll­ment Pitch

Health care got more at­ten­tion than it’s had in a State of the Uni­on since 2010. Obama de­fen­ded the Af­ford­able Care Act on its mer­its but also used the high-pro­file speech to make a pitch for en­roll­ment.

“Moms, get on your kids to sign up. Kids, call your mom and walk her through the ap­plic­a­tion,” Obama said. The ad­min­is­tra­tion is set to spend mil­lions of dol­lars over the next two months to en­cour­age people to en­roll in the health care law’s new cov­er­age op­tion, and Obama’s dir­ect ap­peal dur­ing the State of the Uni­on was an­oth­er clear sign that the White House be­lieves its best polit­ic­al ar­gu­ment is simply to get as many people covered as pos­sible.

But that didn’t stop the pres­id­ent from tak­ing a few cracks at Re­pub­lic­ans for their fix­a­tion on re­peal­ing Obama­care — or, at least, hold­ing sym­bol­ic re­peal votes to squeeze Demo­crats ahead of this year’s midterms.

“If you have spe­cif­ic plans to cut costs, cov­er more people, and in­crease choice — tell Amer­ica what you’d do dif­fer­ently. Let’s see if the num­bers add up,” Obama said.

Ken­tucky Gov. Steve Be­s­hear won a shout-out from the pres­id­ent for suc­cess­fully im­ple­ment­ing a state-run in­sur­ance ex­change in a deeply red state. The state has one of the most ef­fect­ive ex­changes in the coun­try.

“Ken­tucky’s not the most lib­er­al part of the coun­try, but he’s like a man pos­sessed when it comes to cov­er­ing his com­mon­wealth’s fam­il­ies,” Obama said.


Ir­an, Afgh­anistan

Obama used his bully pul­pit to pro­mote the re­cent deal that world powers reached with Ir­an as a for­eign policy break­through. The agree­ment curbed the pro­gress of Tehran’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram and rolled parts of it back “for the very first time in a dec­ade,” Obama said.

U.S. dip­lomacy mat­ters just as much as mil­it­ary might, the pres­id­ent ar­gued, de­fend­ing on­go­ing ne­go­ti­ations even as Is­rael and some in Con­gress cri­ti­cize the in­ter­im deal as not be­ing strict enough.

Obama also ramped up pres­sure on law­makers — in­clud­ing fel­low Demo­crats — seek­ing more sanc­tions against Ir­an as ne­go­ti­ations con­tin­ue. Prom­ising to veto those sanc­tions, he said that “for the sake of our na­tion­al se­cur­ity, we must give dip­lomacy a chance to suc­ceed.”

If that fails, all op­tions — pre­sum­ably in­clud­ing mil­it­ary ac­tion — are still on table. “I will be the first to call for more sanc­tions,” Obama said, “and stand ready to ex­er­cise all op­tions to make sure Ir­an does not build a nuc­le­ar weapon.” This pub­lic prom­ise may sway some of his crit­ics.

The pres­id­ent also touted his role as a peace­maker. With the end of com­bat op­er­a­tions in Afgh­anistan this year, he said, “Amer­ica’s longest war will fi­nally be over.” Obama is con­sid­er­ing leav­ing a small force of U.S. troops for nar­row coun­terter­ror­ism and train­ing mis­sions — if such a deal can be reached with Afgh­anistan. Out­go­ing Afghan Pres­id­ent Ham­id Kar­zai has so far re­fused to sign the se­cur­ity agree­ment both coun­tries have already ne­go­ti­ated.

Obama stressed the need to close the Guantanamo Bay pris­on — a goal that has eluded him since the be­gin­ning of his pres­id­ency. “With the Afghan war end­ing, this needs to be the year,” Obama said. It ac­tu­ally could hap­pen. The de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill Obama signed late last year re­laxed re­stric­tions on trans­fer­ring de­tain­ees to the cus­tody of for­eign coun­tries.


Broad­en­ing Broad­band

Obama an­nounced a step for­ward in his pro­pos­al to im­prove In­ter­net ac­cess in schools on Tues­day. A part­ner­ship between the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion and com­pan­ies in­clud­ing Apple, Mi­crosoft, Sprint, and Ve­r­i­zon will bring high-speed broad­band In­ter­net to more than 15,000 schools and 20 mil­lion stu­dents over the next two years, Obama said.

The is­sue is one of the few do­mest­ic ini­ti­at­ives Obama can get done without con­gres­sion­al sup­port. The FCC already pays for In­ter­net ac­cess in schools and lib­rar­ies through a pro­gram called “E-Rate” that is fun­ded by fees on monthly phone bills. Last year, Obama called on the agency to dra­mat­ic­ally ex­pand the pro­gram to provide high-speed In­ter­net to 99 per­cent of all stu­dents. The White House provided few de­tails about the part­ner­ship an­nounced Tues­day, but it ap­pears to be a com­bin­a­tion of the ex­ist­ing E-Rate pro­gram and dona­tions from the ma­jor tech­no­logy com­pan­ies.

An­oth­er ma­jor tech is­sue that Obama high­lighted in the speech was pat­ent re­form, ur­ging Con­gress to pass le­gis­la­tion that al­lows “our busi­nesses to stay fo­cused on in­nov­a­tion, not costly, need­less lit­ig­a­tion.” The House passed le­gis­la­tion last year aimed at com­batting “pat­ent trolls” — firms that use bogus pat­ent-in­fringe­ment claims to ex­tort set­tle­ments out of busi­nesses — but the Sen­ate has yet to act.

But one is­sue that was not­able for its al­most com­plete ab­sence in the speech was the con­tro­versy over Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency sur­veil­lance. Obama laid out his views for re­form­ing the agency in a speech earli­er this month, and he showed little in­terest in de­vot­ing more at­ten­tion to the con­tro­versy. He did, however, prom­ise to work with Con­gress to re­form the sur­veil­lance pro­grams.

Sam Baker, Brendan Sasso, Sara Sorcher, Amy Harder and Michael Catalin contributed to this article.
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