WASHINGTON — Call it a reset, reboot or Obama 3.0. Whatever it is, entering the sixth year of his presidency, President Barack Obama has decided he will go it alone if he has to. After five years of fits and starts in trying to work with Republicans in Congress on divisive issues like health care reform and cutting the debt, Obama set a new course in his State of the Union address.
“America does not stand still and neither will I,” he said.
His declaration drew a pop-up ovation from Democrats in the House of Representatives chamber. Republicans sat on their hands staring straight ahead.
Obama did renew an appeal to Congress to work together if possible and seemed to indicate that immigration reform represents the best potential for success, adding that it was time to “fix our broken immigration system”.
Unlike past years, he did not hammer Republicans for blocking a path to citizenship. Several Republican lawmakers seemed to appreciate the ‘soft-sell approach’ and there are indications that leaders like House Speaker John Boehner and others may be open to a compromise that eventually might offer a path to legal status to the millions of residents who entered the country illegally.
Republicans have an incentive to defuse immigration as a political issue. A kinder, gentler approach to the growing Hispanic population would help blunt Democratic attacks in this year’s congressional midterm campaign that Republicans are anti-immigration. It’s also another sign that mainstream Republicans believe the Tea Party is in retreat after last October’s politically disastrous government shutdown that hurt the Republican Party across the board.
The limits of executive action
One of the first actions the president announced was increasing the minimum wage for new federal contract workers from $7.25 an hour to $10.10. But this action also points up the limits of executive power. The wage increase only applies to future contracts and will impact very few workers initially.
Most of the other actions announced by the president are small-bore steps and programs designed to buttress his fundamental goal—to make the middle class more secure and to try and narrow the growing income gap between the wealthiest 1 percent in the U.S. and everyone else.
That’s not to say executive orders and presidential proclamations can’t have a major impact. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 freeing slaves in the southern states. President Harry Truman issued the order to desegregate the military in 1948 and President Bill Clinton unilaterally declared millions of acres of federal land as protected national monuments in the 1990s.
But the Constitution sets limits on unilateral presidential action and executive orders are not immune from court challenges that occasionally wind up being decided in the Supreme Court. Given the conservative slant to the current high court, the president may wish to avoid that if possible.
The Republican backlash
The Republican reaction to the president’s ‘Go it alone’ strategy has been predictable. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a possible presidential contender in 2016, described the approach as “borderline unconstitutional.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Texas Senator and Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz decried the president’s “persistent pattern of lawlessness.”
Since the earliest days of his presidency, many Republicans, especially those aligned with the Tea Party, have promoted the narrative that Obama is bent on pursuing an ‘imperial presidency.’ They point to the enactment of the health care law as the prime example of the president running roughshod over the objections of the tens of millions of Americans represented by Republicans in Congress. No Republicans supported the law when it passed Congress in 2010.
The Republicans will try to turn the executive order strategy against the president and Democrats in the November elections. And they will continue to focus on what they contend is the failure of Obamacare in this year’s campaign, even though the president made it clear in his State of the Union that he believes voters are not interested in refighting old battles over health care again in 2014 and he will resist any effort to kill the law.
It’s really about November
In any election year, the president’s State of the Union serves as a blueprint for his party’s campaign strategy. For Democrats in 2014, the emphasis will be on bolstering the middle class with practical government assistance that includes raising the minimum wage across the board, extending unemployment benefits for the jobless, greater access to college and funding pre-school programs. Polls show these types of initiatives are popular not only with Democrats but with independent voters, a group that has vacillated in its support of the president in the past.
Obama and the Democrats are trying to tap into a growing sense of middle class angst that is leftover from the last recession, the fear that the American Dream is in decline and that our children will not have it as good as we had it. It’s the same fear that underlines poll numbers that show for the past 10 years, Americans have generally felt the country is headed in the wrong direction. It’s also partly why Obama’s approval rating is mired down in the low to mid-40s even though there are numerous signs of an improving national economy in terms of job growth and a strengthening housing market.
Republicans are trying to tap into the same fears. Their pitch will be to limit the government’s involvement in the lives of Americans and rely more on individual initiative and the power of the free market. They will point over and over again to the flaws of the president’s health care law as the best example of government overreach.
And so the midterm battle begins with significant political stakes for the president and for both political parties. If the Republicans can hold or increase their majority in the House of Representatives and also gain the six seats they need to take control of the Senate, they will be able to block anything the president wants to do in his final two years, rendering him a true ‘lame duck.’
Democrats are panicked at the thought of losing the Senate and will pour all the resources they have into holding enough seats to keep their majority. Their problem is that many of the key Senate races this year are in Republican-leaning states that have soured on Obama. If the president’s poll ratings stay low, history tell us that Democrats could have a long and difficult night when the elections are held on November 4.