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Obama’s go-it-alone strategy has its limits

President Barack Obama stood in front of lawmakers Tuesday night and pledged to work with them when possible to find common ground, but he also made clear he would not hesitate to work around Congress when gridlock and dysfunction get in the way of results.

“Let’s make this a year of action,” the president said.

For Mr. Obama the speech marked his fifth official State of the Union address, and presented an opportunity to rebuild public support in his agenda following a bruising year politically that saw his approval ratings decline to record lows in the aftermath of the botched rollout of the health care law.

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The president outlined more than a dozen steps he was prepared to take on his own, such as raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour under new federal contracts, streamlining the permitting process for infrastructure projects and setting higher fuel efficiency standards for trucks.

“America does not stand still, and neither will I,” the president told lawmakers. “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.”

Republicans had been critical of the president’s “pen and phone” approach in advance of the address, and the 65-minute speech appeared to do little to change things.

“Instead of our areas of common ground, the president focused too much on the things that divide us – many we’ve heard before – and warnings of unilateral action,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement following the remarks. “The president must understand his power is limited by our constitution, and the authority he does have doesn’t add up to much for those without opportunity in this economy.”

The Washington Post’s Scott Wilson suggests the president’s move toward more executive action could hamper future dealings with Congress:

The approach, outlined in a speech that ran more than a hour, reflects the White House’s view that Obama spent too much time last year in conflict with recalcitrant lawmakers, rather than using the unilateral powers in his grasp.

But the go-it-mostly-alone strategy risks further antagonizing Congress and resting part of his legacy on executive actions that do not have the permanence, or breadth, of major legislation.

The more executive-style presidency scores high with the public after years of political deadlock in Washington. It also marks a refiguring of Brand Obama, of the politician who promised to govern more modestly and cooperatively with the opposition after the polarizing years of the George W. Bush administration.

While the president is unlikely to get much cooperation from Republicans in Congress on dealing with climate change or tougher gun control legislation, Tuesday’s remarks did signal a potential opening when it comes to immigration reform. The president dedicated one paragraph of his speech to the subject, with the tone more in line with extending an olive branch than a public rebuke for inaction to this point.

“Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have acted, and I know that members of both parties in the House want to do the same,” the president said.

House Republicans plan to discuss a path forward on immigration reform during their annual retreat that begins Wednesday. “We’re going to outline our standards, principles of immigration reform and have a conversation with our members,” Boehner told reporters Tuesday morning.

For his part the president will kick off his post-speech push with events Wednesday in Maryland to highlight his call to increase the minimum wage and later in Pittsburgh, where he’ll promote his new retirement proposals.

For a point-by-point rundown of the president’s address and more coverage, visit the PBS NewsHour blog.


The official Republican response Tuesday night fell to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chair of the House GOP Conference. But as has been the case in recent years, other GOP lawmakers stepped forward to provide their own rebuttals to the president. Most focused on the president’s message regarding inequality and job creation, rather than his emphasis on using executive action to affect change.

  • McMorris Rodgers spoke about her background growing up in Washington state, participating in 4-H and raising her three children, and the GOP’s plans to close the gap between people who want opportunity and jobs and can’t reach them. “We want you to have a better life,” she said. “The President wants that too. But we part ways when it comes to how to make that happen. So tonight I’d like to share a more hopeful, Republican vision. One that empowers you, not the government. It’s one that champions free markets – and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you.”
  • Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, also addressed the “inequality crisis” when he delivered the tea party’s official response.
  • Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., reacted to the speech with his own response, opening with a comparison to the Reagan administration and describing the housing bubble and government involvement that he said has caused economic inequality.
  • Sen. Lindsey Graham said, “The world is literally about to blow up,” as he reacted to the foreign policy points in Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address.
  • Boehner taped a little ditty of a response on Vine, saying: “Appreciate what the President said tonight but I’m w/ those who still asking, ‘where are the jobs?'”


  • The House is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a farm bill that includes subsidies for farmers and $800 million-a-year in cuts to food stamps.
  • As the Republican House Conference heads to its annual policy retreat, senior leaders are privately conceding that they’ll have to pass a clean debt ceiling increase. But that doesn’t mean conservatives won’t be pushing attachments at the retreat, and that if a policy emerged that a majority of their members could get behind, Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., wouldn’t put it to the floor.
  • When a NY1 reporter tried to ask Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., about allegations of campaign finance improprieties after the State of the Union address, the Staten Island representative walked off camera, only to walk back into view, seemingly threatening the reporter, saying things like, “I’ll break you in half.”
  • Former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was featured in a TV ad advocating for tougher gun control laws that aired Tuesday night before and after the president’s State of the Union address. Giffords attended last year’s speech as a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama when Mr. Obama called on members of Congress to give victims a simple vote on gun control legislation. A compromise plan to expand background checks and limit the size of magazine clips failed to move forward in the Senate last April.
  • Sen. John McCain told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the Arizona Republican Party’s censure of him for being insufficiently conservative was motivation to consider running for a sixth term in 2016.
  • The New York Times diagrams New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s inner sanctum and the overlap between his policy and political circles as they executed a highly organized strategy to win the state’s “top 100” swing towns last year.
  • As part of their reported $1 million ad buy, the Democratic Governors Association is airing a new spot criticizing Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s cuts to education funding.
  • The NSA has posted a job opening for a “privacy officer,” the first position of its kind at the agency. On his blog, former Department of Homeland Security official Paul Rosenzweig named Rebecca “Becky” Richards, of the DHS’ privacy office, as the selectee.
  • The Washington Post caught up with Jesse Ferguson, who returns to work this week at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee with his fight against cancer under control.
  • Florida Gov. Rick Scott is seeking $1.4 million in budget proposals in what he’s calling the “It’s Your Money Tax Cut Budget.” The initiative, proposed Tuesday, doubles as a re-election platform and features $500 million in tax and fee cuts and $542 million for public education.
  • Wednesday is virtual “Big Block of Cheese Day” at the White House. Members of the administration will be answering questions from Americans via social media. The tradition dates back to President Andrew Jackson who invited citizens to the White House to interact with officials and placed a 1,400 pound block of cheese in the foyer for guests to eat.
  • Wednesday is also frequent Morning Line co-author Katelyn Polantz’s last day at the NewsHour. She’s moving to the National Law Journal to cover legal business. You can reach her in the future at kpolantz@alm.com or follow her on Twitter at @kpolantz.


Simone Pathe and Ruth Tam contributed to this report.

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Questions or comments? Email Terence Burlij at tburlij-at-newshour-dot-org.

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