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

National Journal
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.”

EN­ERGY AND EN­VIR­ON­MENT

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.

HEALTH CARE

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.

NA­TION­AL SE­CUR­ITY

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.

TECH­NO­LOGY

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.

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
23 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Maher Weighs in on Bernie, Trump and Palin
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

“We haven’t seen a true leftist since FDR, so many millions are coming out of the woodwork to vote for Bernie Sanders; he is the Occupy movement now come to life in the political arena.” So says Bill Maher in his Hollywood Reporter cover story (more a stream-of-consciousness riff than an essay, actually). Conservative states may never vote for a socialist in the general election, but “this stuff has never been on the table, and these voters have never been activated.” Maher saves most of his bile for Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, writing that by nominating Palin as vice president “John McCain is the one who opened the Book of the Dead and let the monsters out.” And Trump is picking up where Palin left off.

Source:
×