the national interest

What Obama Is Really Trying to Do in the State of the Union Address

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 24: U.S. President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill January 24, 2012 in Washington, DC. The president made a populist pitch to voters for economic fairness, saying the federal government should more do to balance the benefits of a capitalist society. (Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)
Photo: Pool/2012 Getty Images

At the outset of the second year of President Obama’s second term, the narrative that has set in is a presidency that has sunk into lethargy, or possibly crisis, undertaking dramatic unilateral action. As far back as a month ago, reporters were calling the administration’s focus on executive authority a “reboot.” With the big speech at hand, the administration and media alike are ramping up the drama. The Washington Post, to cite one of many examples, exclaims, “For the first time, following what many allies view as a lost year, the White House is reorganizing itself to support a more executive-focused presidency.”

The drama is almost entirely contrived. Little about the administration’s approach has changed. What’s more, while 2013 may have been dominated on the surface by a large, notable failure, in many ways it was a year of underplayed success.

Photo: Karen Bleier,KAREN BLEIER/AFP/GEtty Images

At the outset of Obama’s second term, I described the outlines of what I thought a successful second term would look like. I think my analysis holds up pretty well (which can’t be said for every prediction I’ve made). It was clear at the time to the administration that, with the potential unique exception of immigration reform, there was no possibility for any significant legislation to emerge through a Congress that required the assent of John Boehner’s asylum. Any hope for progress lay in immigration reform and a series of executive actions — most important, pending new regulations on power plants, which could, along with other environmental regulations already issued, accomplish the same greenhouse-gas-emissions targets that the failed cap-and-trade bill from 2010 sought.

That remains the case today. The existing-plant regulations are due to come out in June. Immigration reform is about as plausible now as it was a year ago, with House Republican leaders still trying to find a way to pass an acceptable bill.

What, then, has the administration done with the last year? The first thing it did was wage a political war to assert, or reassert, the basic legitimacy of the executive branch. In my preview of Obama’s second term, I wrote, “The necessary predicate [for a successful second term] is for Republicans to accept Obama as a legitimate president.”

In 2013, Republicans were not prepared to make that concession. The congressional GOP undertook a campaign to strip Obama of the normal presidential powers, in two ways. One was by using the threats of a government shutdown and a debt default as “leverage,” which could force the president to surrender policy concessions to Congress without any policy trades. The second was an unprecedented move to blockade any appointment at all to vacant executive branch and judicial positions. Much of the drama of 2013 was consumed with Obama and his Democratic allies successfully beating back this ambitious Republican effort to reshape the power dynamic between the branches of government.

Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The end results — new limits on the filibuster, and the crushing of the hostage-taking strategy — were not preordained. (Indeed, most pundits predicted Obama’s counterattack would fail. Here’s Chris Cillizza predicting last summer that Senate Democrats would never limit the filibuster; here are various pundits predicting Obama would have to pay a debt-ceiling ransom.) But if Obama had not beaten back the assault on the presidency, he would now be in no position to carry out the work his administration is undertaking.

For instance, having managed to install a chairman of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the administration has finalized key rules in the Dodd-Frank law. Those regulations have received little attention, but the end result is that even many liberal skeptics now say the law is far tougher on Wall Street than they originally believed. And having filled the vacancies on the crucial D.C. Circuit Court, the administration is much better positioned to defend itself from the inevitable legal attacks on its regulations on the environment and elsewhere.

Photo: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The other major implementation project of 2013 was the Obamacare rollout. That, of course, was an utter debacle of such a scale that even mentioning the administration’s successes alongside it has a mordant, pitiful ring of “Other than that, how did you enjoy the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” The shoddy website helped launch a wave of disastrous news coverage, spreading out to other, more predictable transition problems, like people who received cancellation notices. The failed Obamacare launch has dragged the president’s approval ratings into anomalously low territory, threatening to turn the midterm elections, which already favored the GOP, into a chance to hand Republicans control of the Senate.

Those low approval ratings provide the impetus for Obama’s splashy new message. Everything about Obama’s messaging — the image of vigorous unilateral action, the laser focus on jobs, the small but popular policy initiatives attached to it — serve the goal of patching up the president’s standing and framing the Washington story in the most favorable terms possible. The State of the Union address is not an effort to fundamentally reorient the administration’s strategy. It’s a campaign to mend the political damage from the botched Obamacare launch.

What Obama Is Really Trying to Do in the SOTU