The grand legislative ambitions of the hope-and-change president are a distant memory now, replaced by a more pragmatic realization of what still might be possible.
President Obama gave his sixth State of the Union address Tuesday night, hoping to reinvigorate his second term while seemingly accepting the limitations of the presidency in a deeply divided Washington. He outlined a series of executive actions designed to bypass Congress, but also urged lawmakers to join him in “a year in action.”
Following months of mostly inaction in Washington, Americans should cheer that call and Obama’s optimistic vision for a different approach in 2014.
Time, like bipartisanship in the Capitol, is in short supply. Lawmakers will soon be focused on the midterm elections and their own campaigns. After those results are in, the race will be on to succeed Obama, whose approval rating has fallen from 57 percent when he was re-elected to 42 percent.
In his 2013 State of the Union address, Obama lobbied Congress to take steps to boost the economic recovery and, in turn, the middle class, declaring that the nation had “cleared away the rubble of crisis.” On Tuesday, he rightly emphasized those being left behind in the recovery, vowing executive measures to raise the minimum wage for new federal contracts from $7.25 to $10.10, aid the long-term unemployed and expand job-training programs.
He also again called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage for the first time in seven years and index it to inflation. Obama first proposed the much-needed minimum-wage hike in his last State of the Union address, but the issue failed to gain traction on Capitol Hill.
The focus on the lower end of the economic ladder is welcome as the recovery continues to benefit those with higher incomes, leaving millions struggling to get by on stagnant wages or no wages at all. Obama’s proposals to provide more job opportunities for the long-term unemployed and create a retirement savings program for those not covered by employer plans are positive steps, but they will reach a relatively small percentage of Americans and will have limited impact if incomes remain stalled.
In addition to the minimum wage, Obama asked Congress for legislative action to put limits on the National Security Agency, address gun violence, provide universal prekindergarten and reform immigration laws.
Immigration, it appears, gives the president one issue on which congressional Republicans might be ready to work with Democrats, in part because the GOP must broaden its political appeal. Obama should seize that opportunity, even if it only results in limited progress toward comprehensive reform.
In fact, much of the agenda Obama offered Tuesday was muted by political reality — a state of affairs effectively previewed by writer David Remnick in his revealing Jan. 27 New Yorker portrait of a president coming to grips with his limitations.
“One of the things that I’ve learned to appreciate more as president is you are essentially a relay swimmer in a river full of rapids, and that river is history,” Obama told Remnick. “You don’t start with a clean slate, and the things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable. But you can move things forward.”
Despite a weak sales job and the botched rollout, Obama moved the nation toward health care for all Americans with the Affordable Care Act. And on Tuesday he rightly urged Republicans to join in improving the law instead of working to repeal it.
The president has ample time to rally the nation on the ACA, income inequality and immigration reform before leaving office in January 2017, but he’ll need a willing Congress to make real progress.
The millions of Americans and would-be Americans who need access to affordable health care, economic opportunity and a path to citizenship are waiting.