POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jan 29, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 08:30 a.m. HST, Jan 29, 2014
WASHINGTON » President Barack Obama's State of the Union address represented a study in scaled-down ambition.
A man who entered the White House yearning for sweeping achievements finds himself five years later threatening an end run around gridlock on Capitol Hill by using executive orders, essentially acknowledging both the limits of his ability to push an agenda through Congress and the likelihood that future accomplishments would be narrow.
In a relaxed, upbeat tone, he urged Republicans to join him in a "year of action." But in a concession to reality, he signaled strongly he would act unilaterally when bipartisan agreement remained out of reach — a possibility he raised himself.
"The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress," Obama told lawmakers as he reminded them of last year's damaging government shutdown.
Executive orders like the one he will employ to raise the minimum wage paid by federal contractors may be the only route available to the president given deep hostility from the Republican majority in the House and a Congress increasingly focused on the 2014 elections rather than Obama's legacy.
But with some notable exceptions, only so much can be delivered through the president's pen if he is not using it to sign legislation. He cannot raise the minimum wage for most workers, overhaul the Social Security system, grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, reorder spending and taxes or even make necessary fixes to the health care law.
Illustrating how challenging it is to use executive orders in an expansive way, the White House refused to say how many workers might gain under the new wage policy, and Republicans, while criticizing the move, played down its impact.
At the same time, anyone who succeeds him can use the same stroke of a pen to undo Obama's actions just as Obama did to some Bush administration policies one day after his inauguration in 2009.
"There is nothing like legislation," said Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor, the president's first chief of staff and a former House member who advocates the strong use of executive power. "But given the challenges that are mounting, the country cannot afford Congress to go MIA."
When it comes to Congress, the formula for success in dealing with a balky opposition continues to elude the White House except perhaps for a new opening with Republicans on immigration.
Despite the modest budget and spending deal completed this month, Congress seems more of a legislative graveyard than ever. Lawmakers cannot find a way to extend emergency jobless benefits even when leaders of both parties acknowledge the aid should and could be approved.
If Congress cannot move on economic and social policy that Democrats and Republicans essentially embrace and that would be a political victory for both parties, how can real disagreement be bridged?
Finding consensus only gets harder from here. The midterms are already taking over the conversation on Capitol Hill, intensifying scrutiny on every vote and making lawmakers even more reluctant to take chances. The growing sense that Republicans have a chance to win the Senate in November raises the prospect that the president's final two years could be consumed by veto fights with opposition majorities in the House and Senate.
Republicans criticized the president's focus on executive action as counterproductive. "Circumventing Congress won't foster job creation and won't result in economic growth," said Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona.
The approach will also feed the conservative narrative that Obama is engaged in a power grab and is ignoring constitutional limits. They point for validation to the so-far-successful legal challenge to his use of recess appointments in a case now before the Supreme Court.
"We're going to watch very closely because there's a Constitution that we all take an oath to, including him, and following that Constitution is the basis for our republic and we shouldn't put that in jeopardy," Speaker John Boehner said hours before the president's address Tuesday.
Boehner said House Republicans would use a retreat that starts today to examine their options when it comes to the president's use of executive authority. They could conceivably file suit or employ legislative tools to seek disapproval of disputed executive orders.
Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., conceded that governance by executive order is not ideal but was justifiable given the depth of Republican opposition.
"This is not a panacea; this is not the fix we are looking for," he said of the president's action on wages. "But he is leading by example, sending a message to Congress that we need to raise the minimum wage for all Americans."
But for Obama, who began his presidency with a gauzy vision of a post-partisan brand of politics that proved to be unrealistic, leading through executive order is not what he had in mind.