The prevailing consensus in Washington is that President Obama is done creating public policy. He may have the ambition to do more, the thinking goes, but he doesn’t have the political support. Republicans control the House and have enough votes to block most legislation in the Senate. And at the moment, at least, Obama isn’t popular enough to force them to act.
There’s obviously plenty of truth there. Nothing as sweeping as health care reform or the Recovery Act is likely to become law as long as Obama is still president. Given the huge challenges still facing the country—most pressing among them, rising inequality—that's a real tragedy. Obama has some very good ideas. He just can't make Congress pass them.
But it's not like the president is powerless. He can set the political agenda and, with some careful targeting, he can make some progress. In Tuesday's State of the Union, he highlighted three ways he hopes to do that over the coming year:
1) Pushing legislation that still has a chance. Most Republicans will oppose anything with Obama’s name on it, if only because that’s what their most conservative supporters demand. But there are Republicans who support infrastructure spending in principle, because it benefits their districts and states, and there are Republicans who support immigration reform, because it benefits business and would help repair the GOP’s rift with Latino voters.
So far, that support hasn’t been enough to get a law through Congress. But there may yet be opportunities. In the speech, Obama mentioned the need to reauthorize spending on highway and water infrastructure—both easy vehicles for infrastructure spending. He also gave a strong endorsement of immigration reform, an idea that Republican leaders like John Boehner have carefully avoided killing altogether. You wouldn’t want to bet on either one passing, but each has a shot.
The other legislative priorities Obama mentioned—a higher minimum wage and an emergency extension of unemployment insurance—generate more antipathy from Republicans. But they are also more popular with the voters. One of the most telling moments on Tuesday came hours before the speech, when Obama announced that he was using an executive action to raise the minimum wage for federal contractor employees. The primary reaction from Republicans wasn’t to criticize the increase per se; it was to suggest that the action wouldn’t have much impact. Raising the minimum wage is highly popular. Extending unemployment insurance is, too. The closer we get to the midterm elections, the harder opposition to these measures become.
2) Using presidential prerogative. Republicans are angry that Obama is doing so much on his own, through executive actions. And, for the record, I have no idea about the limits of presidential authority—and whether any of Obama’s new proposals exceed it. But voters seem a lot less worried. And the executive action can produce real results.
The most obvious example is the order on the minimum wage for federal contractors, which experts think could eventually affect hundreds of thousands of workers. Another example, which Obama also mentioned on Tuesday night, involves an initiative called “ConnectED”—a program to vastly increase the broadband access for public schools. The initiative is possible because funding comes from a small fee on cell phone bills, one that the FCC can set without congressional authorization. It’s not much money to the typical consumer—the figure I’ve seen suggests it’d be no more than $12 per person over the course of three years. But that money can make a real difference to the schools.
Of course, the biggest executive action Obama is taking is the one that’s getting the least attention—and was virtually absent from the State of the Union. It’s his efforts to fight climate change, primarily through new regulations on power plants. Obama hasn’t been saying much about this, perhaps because it doesn’t help him or his party politically. But, as writers like Jonathan Chait keep reminding people, it’s a huge deal.
3) Framing issues for the future. Other than the action on climate change, the most ambitious initiative of Obama’s second term is his proposal for universal pre-kindergarten. It had a prominent place in last year’s address, when Obama first introduced, and it got plenty of attention on Tuesday night’s version. But the chances of anything so sweeping passing Congress are virtually nil. Obama’s proposal, which would provide matching funds for local and state governments starting their own programs, would cost $75 billion over the course of ten years. The money isn’t there—or, more precisely, the political support to find the money isn’t there.
But the spending bill that Congress passed and Obama signed this month included a small bit of extra funding for early childhood programs (along with restoration of Head Start funding cut because of the sequester). In Tuesday’s address, Obama explained that he would use the money to leverage more investment from cities and states, by setting up a competition through the Education Department’s “Race to the Top” program. That alone won’t make early childhood education available to all the families who need it. But it can showcase and reward the most successful programs—many of them already in operation, in conservative states like Georgia and Oklahoma. And those examples can build support for greater initiatives in future presidencies.
Remember, changes in public policy frequently take a lot longer than one presidential term—or even one presidency—to make an impact. It was a law that George H.W. Bush enacted that made the new power plant regulations possible. And it was a law that Bill Clinton tried but failed to enact that made Obamacare possible. The steps Obama takes today can help whoever occupies the Oval Office tomorrow.
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Obviously, it's one thing to try all of these things—and quite another to succeed. Immigration reform and the minimum wage could go nowhere. Executive actions could run into legal problems. And universal pre-k could disappear from the political agenda. But with Tuesday's speech, Obama laid out an agenda that's more realistic and meaningful than most political observers seem to realize.
Note: This item has been updated.