Obama Outlines Modest Plans in State of the Union Before Country Turns the Page

Audacity of a more limited scope

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Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Jan. 28, 2014, as Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, listen.

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday marked an end to one phase of his presidency and the beginning of another.

Gone is the gifted orator who campaigned on change. In his place is a second-term president who has grown acutely aware of the limits of his power. Facing a chamber filled with dignitaries and blessed with a broadcast audience numbering in the tens of millions, Obama’s central theme on Tuesday night was continuity—and a promise of prosperity just around the corner. Even after a miserable 2013 that saw his legislative agenda stymied and his approval ratings plummet to historic lows, Obama chose not to chart a new path. Instead, he sketched plans to clear his to-do list before an already listless presidency slouches into lame-duck status.

“I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America,” Obama said. “After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth. The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress.”

The speech was littered with well-worn policies and economic themes on which Obama has relied time and again. He offered “a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.” But virtually all of them, from manufacturing initiatives to wider broadband access to a higher minimum wage, were ideas Obama has plugged before.

“After four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better,” Obama said. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

The focus on economic inequality and upward mobility echoes the strain of populism now pulsating through the Democratic Party. But for Obama, these are reheated themes from his fiery 2011 address in Osowatomie, Kan., and before that, the 2005 commencement address at Knox College that laid the groundwork for his first campaign.

Even senior administration officials conceded Obama mustered few fresh ideas. The president touted a new “starter” savings account to help citizens stow money for retirement, which he pledged to create by executive action. He asked Congress to pass an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, a program that provides an average of $800 in savings to some 15 million families. These may be sensible steps, but as far as audacity goes, they are not exactly on par with slowing the rise of the oceans.

But Obama didn’t pass up an opportunity to take something of a victory lap for what he sees as his biggest accomplishments: “The lowest unemployment rate in over five years,” he said, ticking them off. “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 twenty years. Our deficits—cut by more than half.  And 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.”

On the charged issue of climate change, Obama called for new fuel efficiency standards for trucks—but didn’t mention the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. He urged the two parties to join forces to overhaul flawed immigration laws, but declined to stake out specifics ahead of House Republicans’ imminent policy announcement. He will take action to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 for employees working on new federal contracts, but not existing ones. He steered away from hot-button topics like gun control.

Even at its boldest moment, it was a speech of half-measures. Obama drew Republican fire by pledging to sidestep Congress when necessary, but the executive actions he announced were mild ones. His administration will continue to press CEOs to hire the long-term unemployed, and is reviewing ways to improve federal job training programs.

On foreign policy too, Obama called for staying the course. With the war in Afghanistan in its 13th year, the president reiterated that American troops could remain on the ground past the end of the year if the U.S. hammers out a security agreement with the Afghan government. On Iran, Obama pledged to veto any new sanctions that would undermine his administration’s diplomatic efforts to halt that country’s nuclear program.

The challenge for Obama’s second term has always been his first. A quick burst of dramatic legislative accomplishments, ushered through during a brief phase of one-party Democratic rule in Washington, gave way after 2010 to an obstructionist House controlled by an opposition party bent on thwarting him at every turn. The last four years have been focused on the long slog of implementing the achievements from his first two. And even that process has had its bumps, as with the uneven rollout of the health care reform law. With Republicans continuing to wield Obamacare as their primary political weapon ahead of the midterm elections, Obama reiterated that he’s not going back.

“I don’t expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law,” he said. But I know that the American people aren’t interested in re-fighting old battles. So again, if you have specific plans to cut costs, cover more people, and increase choice—tell America what you’d do differently.  Let’s see if the numbers add up. But let’s not have another 40-something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans.”

As Washington turns toward the 2014 campaign, and beyond that to the race for his successor, Obama has pledged to carry out the rest of his agenda armed with “his pen and his phone.” These are modest tools for the leader of the free world. But Obama has a knack for grasping the limits of his powers. “At the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story.” Obama said in a recent interview with the New Yorker. “We just try to get our paragraph right.”

His challenge now, as Tuesday night’s address showed, is to finish it before the country turns the page.