Obama’s modest agenda for 2014

President Obama sought to re-energize his slumping presidency with an upbeat State of the Union address.

What happened

President Obama sought to re-energize his slumping presidency this week with an upbeat State of the Union address in which he vowed to use his executive powers to narrow the gap between rich and poor and speed the economic recovery. Mired in low approval ratings and constrained by a deadlocked Congress, Obama positioned himself as a determined champion of ordinary Americans sick of partisan bickering. While corporations and the wealthy are flourishing, Obama said, “average wages have barely budged,” and “inequality has deepened.” The president called on lawmakers to help “reverse these trends” by expanding jobless benefits, reforming the immigration system, and raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, up from $7.25. He said he’d issue executive orders to further these goals when possible, and use his influence with corporate leaders and state governments. “I’m eager to work with all of you,” he told a joint session of Congress. “But America does not stand still, and neither will I.”

In the Republican Party’s official response to Obama’s speech, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington cast the widening divide between rich and poor as a direct consequence of Obama’s economic policies. “Republicans have plans to close the gap,” she said, “plans that focus on jobs without more spending, government bailouts, and red tape.”

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What the editorials said

Obama’s State of the Union address made one thing clear: He’s “a spent force,” said The Wall Street Journal. Gone were the grand progressive ambitions of last year’s speech, such as new gun control measures and jobs programs, none of which passed Congress. In their place were small-ball proposals, such as ordering that federal contractors pay workers a minimum of $10.10 an hour, aimed at proving to disenchanted Democrats that they should vote in this year’s midterms.

Obama does have proposals that would make a real difference to the economy, said The New York Times,if only Republicans would remove their ideological blinders. Take Obama’s call to expand the earned-income tax credit, which now goes to 15 million families, to workers without children. That would lift many Americans out of poverty, and provide an incentive to work that many conservatives say they support. Democrats should push for a vote in Congress to “reveal whether Republicans are so opposed to anything Obama wants that they would reject their own ideas.”

What the columnists said

Clearly, the president has learned nothing in five years in office, said Jennifer Rubin in WashingtonPost.com. He’s used his presidency to ramp up the size of government and seize control of the health-care sector—only to see sluggish economic growth and more inequality. Yet all he can offer is “cold leftovers” of failed or rejected Big Government policies. “This is the face of liberal statism: vapid, exhausted, and defensive.”

If Obama and the country are stalled, said David Corn in MotherJones.com, it’s because of Republican obstructionism. Since day one, the GOP has done everything it can to thwart “all the initiatives he deems necessary for the good of the nation.” Obama didn’t call out the Republicans in the audience for blocking his attempts to stimulate the economy, perhaps hoping that if he didn’t embarrass them, immigration reform “might still be possible in the last years of his presidency.” Obama would have been “an idiot” to admit that Republicans have blocked a stronger recovery, said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com. Americans prefer to believe that their president is all-powerful, so Obama’s vague talk about doing something to help the economy “was an extended attempt to humor their naïveté.”

For Obama, “reality has sunk in,” said Doyle McManus in the Los Angeles Times. Any chance he had to push through major legislation vanished when Republicans took over the House in 2010. If he can make his health-care program work, avoid new international or economic crises, and help his party hold on to the Senate, Obama will likely view 2014 as a success. It’s a modest agenda. “But gauged by what’s doable in the second term of an eight-year presidency, it is also a realistic one.”

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