A State of the Union at Standstill, With Familiar Lines

Americans who tuned in to the State of the Union address on Tuesday night could be forgiven for thinking they had already heard the speech before. President Obama’s call for a “year of action” was thin on new major policy proposals. It was packed, however, with plans he has pushed before: reforming America’s immigration system, overhauling the tax code, repairing national infrastructure, creating universal preschool, and raising the minimum wage.

The familiarity of that wish list is a reminder of just how little Washington has done for the rest of the country since the president and Congress were sworn in a year ago. Recognizing this, Obama promised to bypass lawmakers: “Wherever and whenever I can take steps to expand opportunity for American families without legislation, that’s what I’m going to do.”

His first attempt is raising the minimum wage that federal contractors must pay to $10.10 per hour. “If you cook our troops meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty,” Obama said. That executive order will apply to contracts going forward, and will affect “a couple hundred thousand” workers, Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett told Bloomberg TV.

Still, for all the chatter about a “year of action,” the president can only tinker at the margins without Congress on board, as Businessweek’s Josh Green pointed out before the speech. The White House’s thin record on passing legislation since Democrats lost control of the House in 2010 shows paralysis is the norm in Washington, not an aberration. Obama pointed to the recent budget deal—an agreement that followed years of brinkmanship and a 16-day government shutdown—as a glimmer of hope. “The budget compromise should leave us freer to focus on creating new jobs, not creating new crises,” he said.

The question for 2014 is whether Democrats and Republicans will cut similar deals on issues that both sides agree need action, such as immigration reform and tax reform. Republicans eager to win over Hispanic voters may push for an immigration deal, but the party’s hardliners are likely to prove just as reluctant to cede ground for a compromise, especially in a midterm election year. Obama sounded tired of pushing the issue: “Let’s get immigration reform done this year. Let’s get it done. It’s time.”

The president delivered this speech with some of the lowest approval ratings of his five years in office, with about half the country disapproving of the job he’s doing and 40 percent in support. Allies on the left are disturbed by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s revelations about the reach of state surveillance, and just one sentence of the speech nodded to the long-running scandal: ”Working with this Congress, I will reform our surveillance programs, because the vital work of our intelligence programs depends on public confidence here and abroad that privacy of ordinary people is not being violated.”

The president also bypassed the disastrous debut of healthcare.gov, an embarrassing failure of execution on Obama’s most important domestic achievement, and instead talked up the law’s benefits. He cited 3 million young adults covered on their parent’s health plans and 9 million Americans who selected private health plans or Medicaid coverage through the health-care exchanges. “Because of this law, no American, none, zero, can ever again be dropped or denied coverage for preexisting conditions like asthma or back pain or cancer,” he said.

While Obama called for congressional Republicans to stop voting to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the GOP’s response made it clear the party isn’t letting up on the issue. Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington cited complaints from a constituent who saw her premiums go up by almost $700 a month. “This law is not working,” she said in one of three Republican responses.

Obama gets to make two more of these speeches. Barring an election upset that hands Democrats control of Congress, he’s not likely to have more landmark accomplishments—on climate change, tax reform, gun control, or the federal minimum wage—to boast about in future addresses.

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