President Obama has been nothing if not a model of consistency in his State of the Union speeches, focusing again and again on the critical need to lift up America’s struggling middle classes. There is no more important issue on the agenda today. But in any political leader, consistency and conviction need to be twinned with a sense of opportunity and timing. And last night’s State of the Union speech was a big missed opportunity in that regard.
More than at any point since Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives in 2010 following the health care overhaul, President Obama actually has a chance for major legislative victories this year. House Republicans are seriously considering passing immigration reform, which has been the president’s top priority for the past three years. With major trade negotiations under way with Asia and Europe, the president will need new trade promotion authority to move the treaties through Congress, and the Republicans seem prepared to give it to him. And tax reform, while a longer shot, has made modest progress thanks to the tireless work of House Ways & Means chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) and outgoing Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus (D-MT).
Each of these issues merited barely a mention in the speech, and on none of them did the president give any kudos to Congress for the efforts being made. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), aware of the rising political costs of his party’s current stance on immigration, is risking confrontation with his Tea Party wing to try to move forward. He is expected to release a set of principles for immigration reform this week that is likely to leave many Republicans unhappy. The president could have offered a small olive branch, as he has done previously, by encouraging the House to move ahead with its own set of proposals, which could then be reconciled with the Senate bill passed last year. Instead, he only offered clichéd restatements about the value of immigration reform to the U.S. economy.
On trade, many congressional Democrats are certainly less than enthusiastic about passing trade promotion authority, and Obama clearly wanted to avoid a fight with his own party. He instead offered the blandest possible endorsement--“We need to work together on tools like bipartisan trade promotion authority.” But if Obama is unwilling to challenge his party directly on trade, as President Bill Clinton did in passing NAFTA, how can he expect Speaker Boehner to do the same on immigration?
And on tax reform, rather than calling out the Camp-Baucus efforts and offering a pat on the back and a willingness to work together, Obama stuck to his formulaic call to “close loopholes” and end “incentives to ship jobs overseas.”
The president certainly has a right to feel burned by the Republican Congress. His efforts over the years to reach a grand budget bargain with Speaker Boehner, for instance, came to naught. But again, politics is about change and possibilities, and just because compromise failed in the past doesn’t mean it can’t succeed in the future. Obama at least acknowledged the recent deal that has finally called a truce to the budget wars, but would it have hurt to give a shout out to its architects, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA)? Or perhaps a mention of the critical role played by House Appropriations Committee chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) and his Senate counterpart Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)? At the least, the president missed an easy opportunity to build some good will.
Instead, the president’s advisers seemed to have persuaded him that, rather than using this moment of possibility to build some issue-by-issue bipartisan alliances on big pieces of legislation, this year was the time to focus on “executive action.” That means no need to try once again to find messy compromises with the Republicans, but it just feeds into the GOP meme that the president is abusing his authority and ignoring the Congress. And the list of promised executive actions was underwhelming--a “College Opportunity Summit,” new “manufacturing hubs,” reform of job training programs, and a new retirement savings bond. These are all worthy initiatives, but hardly the stuff of a strong presidential legacy. The things that really matter require Congress to act.
The president’s advisers may be right that there is little chance for cooperation with Congress, especially in yet another election year. And certainly there are important parts of the president’s agenda (a minimum wage increase, an infrastructure bank, an unemployment insurance overhaul) that simply don’t have the necessary GOP support. But with Republicans almost certain to retain the House in elections this November, there are two options--try to seize the opportunities that are there for cooperation, or live with three more years of legislative gridlock and occasional executive actions too small for the scale of the problems.