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01.26.12

Why President Obama Loaded His State of the Union With Small Initiatives

Much of Washington scoffed at the modest initiatives in the State of the Union, but the president’s approach may be shrewder than it looks.

It must be maddening for Barack Obama to win a historic victory and then have his dream of being a transformational president reduced to a series of small-ball measures.

Shelved are any prospects for legislation to confront climate change or overhaul a broken immigration system. Instead he has to settle for modest initiatives that he can undertake on his own. He’s been piling up quite a list, and mentioned at least three more in his State of the Union address: a Veterans Job Corps to help communities hire vets as cops and firefighters, a Trade Enforcement Unit to put more heat on China, and a Financial Crimes Unit to ferret out fraud on Wall Street.

Obama understands the political reality for the coming year is more gridlock, and vowed to “fight obstruction with action.” It’s a strategy that he has pursued since last fall under the rubric “We can’t wait,” and is designed to put the onus on Congress for failing to address the lackluster economic recovery.

“He needs to give the impression of activity even if the specifics are often forgotten,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a former Republican National Committee staffer. “What he’s saying is, ‘I’m a president meant to accomplish big things, and Congress won’t do anything.’”

The gambit worked for Harry Truman against a “do-nothing Congress” controlled by Republicans in 1948. It’s more complicated for Obama, because he has a Democratic Senate. But with Congress’s approval rating at a historic low—13 percent in the latest NBC poll—-differentiating between the parties seems little more than a technicality.

“The notion that Washington is broken is shared by just about everybody and embodied in the Congress,” says Bill Burton, who runs the pro-Obama Super PAC, Priorities USA.

Obama’s efforts to bypass Congress are reminiscent of what another Democratic president, Bill Clinton, did after the GOP seized control of Congress. The difference is that Clinton chose initiatives clearly grounded in values, like advocating school uniforms or V-chips for parents to control what their children watched on TV.

“The notion that Washington is broken is shared by just about everybody, and embodied in the Congress.”

Obama’s actions are meant to convey the message that government can be an effective and efficient tool in people’s lives. Clinton was mocked for putting the power of the presidency behind such small-time ideas, but they resonated. Obama’s initiatives, taken as a whole, are more ambitious. They include executive orders to help homeowners with their mortgages and students with the repayment of loans. Last week he even got into the tourism business, signing an executive order to cut through red tape for foreigners seeking tourist visas.

The individual ideas are not blockbusters and rarely capture a headline for more than a day, but that’s OK, says Matt Bennett with Third Way, a moderate Democratic group. “It’s the concept they’re pushing—that this Congress is broken, and we’ve got to do something.”

There will be more “we can’t wait” surprises from this White House, but however satisfying it is for government enthusiasts to comb the bureaucracy looking for new efficiencies, if Obama wants to get the voters’ attention, it will take bolder action.

Rejecting the Keystone oil pipeline, at least for now, got Congress’s attention, as did Obama’s recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. These are major affronts to Congress, and they’ve got Republicans seething.

If it weren’t for the GOP nomination fight taking up all the media oxygen, Congress would be making more hay out of what Republicans call Obama’s power grab. Even as Obama in his State of the Union speech called for expediting up-or-down votes on presidential nominees, the GOP will likely retaliate by stalling more appointments. “What the president gains politically, he could lose by way of getting anything out of the Hill,” says Pitney.

Once Obama gets a compromise to continue the payroll tax cut, any additional serious engagement with Congress is unlikely. He is faced with the equivalent of what in legal circles is called jury nullification, where a unified opposition will neither pass legislation nor confirm his nominees, and is running on repealing his two signature accomplishments, health-care and financial-services reform. Tuesday night’s speech was about “large themes and big fights picked,” says Bill Galston with the Brookings Institution, “not this small-bore stuff.”