Wednesday, January 29, 2014

State of the Union 2014: The play-action quarterback

PRESIDENT OBAMA said this in the State of the Union address last year: “It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country – the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love.”

President Obama said this in the State of the Union address last night.“[W]hat I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all, the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America.”

It’s a measure of the president’s singular rhetorical skill that this year’s State of the Union address — by turns anodyne and ambitious, ameliorative and pugnacious — managed to invoke some of last year’s themes, and the last SOTU’s language, without looking dated. Mostly because much of what was important last year is still of top-shelf concern today.

Expressing the hope that 2014 can be “a breakthrough year for America,” Obama last night held out the interparty olive branch the SOTU tradition demands, even as he let the Congress and the nation know that he’d go it alone if necessary, ready to embrace the idea that, sometimes if you want something done right, even partially, be prepared to do it yourself.

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He began with a statement string of powerful successes: “the lowest unemployment rate in over five years; a rebounding housing market; a manufacturing sector that's adding jobs for the first time since the 1990s; more oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world, the first time that's happened in nearly 20 years; our deficits cut by more than half; and for the first time, for the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world's number one place to invest; America is. ...

“After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth.”

Hoping to build on those solid improvements, Obama threw down a challenge to the Congress. “Let’s make this a year of action.”

Alla that was the honeyed part of the speech. The habaƱero part came later, when the president confronted Republicans with what he is prepared to make their future. “[W]hat I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” Obama said.

“Some require congressional action, and I'm eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do.”

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THAT HEFTY little bon mot went out to a Democratic base eager for Obama to make best and highest use of the presidency to get something accomplished. Those sentences will awaken happy memories of the 2008 Obama, fiery and sharp with possibilities. The president was also master of the physical game last night, his mien upbeat and forward-leaning, his stride almost defiant, his delivery as on-point as ever.

And what he promised he delivered: a call to Congress to “undo the damage done by last year's cuts to basic research so we can unleash the next great American discovery.” A call for patent reform “that allows our businesses to stay focused on innovation, not costly and needless litigation.” An appeal for more and stronger federal partnerships with states and communities to improve pre-K education. A demand for legislation enabling more vehicles’ use of natural gas, to continue the shift away from foreign oil. The expected appeal to Congress to restore unemployment benefits for 1.6 million Americans, taken away by that body one month ago.

And oh yes, there was a refreshingly full-throated cry for an end to the income inequality that precedes the current trendiness of the phrase. “You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it's an embarrassment. Women deserve equal pay for equal work.

“You know, she deserves to have a baby without sacrificing her job. A mother deserves a day off to care for a sick child or sick parent without running into hardship. And you know what? A father does too. It is time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a ‘Mad Men’ episode. This year let's all come together, Congress, the White House, businesses from Wall Street to Main Street, to give every woman the opportunity she deserves, because I believe when women succeed, America succeeds.”

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That’s what he wants to get done. What he’s going to do on his own includes a measure to increase consumer saving. Obama said: “I will direct the Treasury to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings: MyRA. It's a new savings bond that encourages folks to build a nest egg. MyRA guarantees a decent return with no risk of losing what you put in.”

And in a move to change the conversation on changes to the minimum wage, Obama dropped a challenge flag to the Republicans like nothing else could.

“To every mayor, governor, state legislator in America, I say, you don't have to wait for Congress to act; Americans will support you if you take this on. And as a chief executive, I intend to lead by example. ... In the coming weeks I will issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour because if you cook our troops' meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty.”

Then, he made an outright break with some members of his own team. Staring down the threat of an Iran sanctions bill partly supported by prominent Democrats — a measure that could punitively endanger the fragile negotiations with Tehran over access to nuclear weapons technology — the president put those wayward Dems on fair warning:

“[W]ith our allies and partners, we're engaged in negotiations to see if we can peacefully achieve a goal we all share: preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” he said. “... The sanctions that we put in place helped make this opportunity possible. But let me be clear: if this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed.”

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HOWARD FINEMAN of The Huffington Post read the speech as part of a wider tell: “The White House strategy for 2014 is simple enough: ignore Congress (for the most part); be busy, purposeful, detail-oriented and reasonable; and hope that a rising tide of an improving economy will lift all boats -– including the president’s own. ...”

“It’s a game plan borne of necessity, a shrewd assessment of the enemies, and the president’s own personal and political character. He is not a man who relishes confrontation.”

But no — you don’t have to relish confrontation to know how to navigate your way through it, or to avoid it altogether if possible. Last night President Obama showed that, push come to shove, he’s prepared to do both.

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This could all come-a-cropper by degrees, if Obama’s characteristic inclination for consensus rises to critical levels. In the 65 minutes of his address, for example, President Obama used the word “let’s” at least a dozen times — “let’s” the contraction of “let us,” that fundamentally conciliatory phrase that seeks an open hand when none may be available.

By doubling down on his promise to use executive orders to advance his second-term agenda, Obama will be making use of the same executive-branch weapons he had at his disposal for every year of his first term. That fact begs the question of why executive orders are thought to be such a game-changer at this moment in the administration’s life. The one thing that would really make executive orders a big deal now? Signing more of them. A lot more.

To this point in his administration, five years in, Obama has signed 167 executive orders, according to the National Archives’ Executive Orders Disposition Tables Index. Bush 43 signed 291 for all of his administration; Clinton, 364 for all of his; Reagan, 381; Carter, 320; Nixon, 346.

That President Obama has made such comparatively infrequent use of this unassailable presidential prerogative has been one of the foundational disconnects between his rhetoric and his actions. Maybe the SOTU address last night is, finally, his way of saying goodbye to all that.

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IF YOU WANTED a sign of how reflexively resistant the Republican Party is to any kind of accommodation to the president who won a dispositive election last year, you just had to look at John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, last night.

It was mostly a performance in deadpan and hangdog. In a ritual tribute to the national tenacity, Obama spoke of how the national story is expressed in “how the son of a barkeeper is Speaker of the House.” Boehner was touched for a moment, and maybe even moved, but the characteristic Boehner waterworks weren’t on display.

For much of the night he sat opposite Vice President Joe Biden looking like he’d rather be somewhere else, sucking his teeth from time to time, sitting down and on his hands throughout the speech.

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But Boehner’s sullen antics reflected his party’s malaise, and malaise never rules the State of the Union. By historical acclimation, it’s the one constitutionally-determined annual event that observes, in upbeat fashion, the painful but steady advance of American governance.

And last night President Obama dropped the mike and raised the stakes, set the tone — and the bar — for much of the next two-plus years: We got a lot done, but there’s a lot left to do. Get at it. And lift your heads up ... we got this. “Believe it.”

The timing couldn’t be better for this according to the calendar. We’re just days away from Super Bowl XLV&3 I’s, and no matter which way the president leans on which team wins that contest, Obama’s already shown his intention to start making more use of a play-action offense of his own: running with the ball himself whenever he can, using executive orders to let him advance as far on the field as possible on his own, or scrambling to find receivers downfield. If anyone can get open.

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