President Barack Obama spoke Tuesday about “the state of our union,” but the actions he discussed were largely his own.
“I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy.”
“I’ll cut red tape to help states get those factories built.”
“I’ll use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands.”
“I directed my administration to work with states, utilities and others.”
“I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders and philanthropists.”
“My administration has made more loans to small-business owners than any other.”
This was by design — part of what has become Obama’s “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone” approach to governing: He’s not counting on Congress doing much of anything, and he’s going to use executive orders and actions to work around the paralyzed legislature. “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” Obama said.
On the Republican side of the House chamber, faces were stony. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia coughed. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin squinted as if having trouble focusing, then scratched the back of his neck.
The president made requests of Congress, including vague appeals for action on immigration and tax reform and unspecified spending on infrastructure. But for the most part, he spoke as if congressional participation was optional. “I’ve asked Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America’s training programs,” he said. “And if Congress wants to help, you can concentrate funding on proven programs.”
Likewise, he said he would issue an executive order increasing the minimum wage for federal contractors, then added, “Of course, to reach millions more, Congress does need to get on board.”
The address was an implicit acknowledgment that his once-grand legislative ambitions are over. This approach is, by definition, limited in scope (it doesn’t change laws) and temporary (the next president can undo Obama’s executive orders with a stroke of the pen, just as Obama undid many of George W. Bush’s orders).
But instead of greeting Obama’s pen-and-phone workaround as his admission of legislative defeat, congressional Republicans either complained that he wasn’t engaging with them, mocked him for being out of ideas or accused him of constitutional violations. (Never mind that Ronald Reagan and the younger Bush both issued more executive orders in their first terms than Obama did in his.)
There was the usual pageantry and stagecraft: the aisle-sitters who staked out seats early in the day to get a handshake with the president; the women in bright colors providing relief from the sea of dark suits; the stoic Supreme Court justices (a bare majority of five); the bellicose cheers from the president’s party and awkward fidgeting of the opposition; and the feel-good patriotic moments (extended applause for Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg, an injured Army Ranger, who stood with difficulty at the first lady’s side and gave a wave and a thumbs-up). What distinguished this address was the gap between the soaring aspirations the president voiced and the modest prescriptions he floated.
The speech took an hour to deliver, and the text filled 12 pages. The president didn’t mention Obamacare until Page 8. Foreign policy and national security debuted on Page 9. Earlier, Obama spoke of what his second term is all about: lofty aspirations, coupled with small-bore proposals.
“What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” the president said.
That sounded ambitious. But the first item he cited after that was the first lady’s anti-obesity initiative.
The president was at his strongest when he made a populist appeal to extend unemployment insurance, to fight discrimination against women in the workplace and to raise the minimum wage. “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode,” Obama said, drawing roars from the Democratic side and a wry smile from Cantor, who was either chewing gum or grinding his teeth. The president got another cheer from Democrats, and an amused smile from Ryan, when he urged Republicans to “join the rest of the country” in raising the minimum wage.
But a moment later, Obama was back in the first person: “Tomorrow, I will direct the Treasury to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings.”
Congress is welcome to help him out, of course. But it’s strictly optional.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.