A revitalized President Barack Obama and newly empowered Republican leaders are heading into Tuesday's State of the Union address on a collision course.
At their joint retreat in Hershey, Pa., Republicans fresh off triumphant midterm elections said they are looking for the president to become a legislating partner — even as they promise bold, or even quixotic, clashes with Obama. But Obama has been on offense, pushing a more aggressive agenda while raining down veto threats on the new Congress. And even if many of his initiatives seem destined to become legislative cannon fodder, his pen-and-phone agenda has been in hyperdrive, most notably with his temporary executive amnesty for millions of immigrants.
Obama's poll numbers have been buoyed in recent weeks amid signs of an improving economy, with the president looking to build momentum heading into what he calls the "fourth quarter" of his presidency.
"America’s resurgence is real. Our job now is to make sure that every American feels that they’re a part of our country’s comeback," he said in his radio address previewing the speech, adding Congress should join him and stop the "games."
Obama's middle-class agenda, headlined by a push for free community college and middle-class tax cuts paid for by new tax hikes on the wealthy and the biggest banks, represents the initial Democratic ask heading into negotiations over a tax overhaul and the budget.
It's effectively a dare to Republicans to side with the rich or come to the table on fighting income inequality. Either Obama gets an unlikely win or Democrats get a campaign agenda for 2016.
Republican leaders have generally panned Obama's policy rollout, but they are holding out hope for deals on trade, transportation and a tax overhaul later this year and are hopeful he'll send signals Tuesday that he's ready to meet them in the middle.
Republicans — whose retreat featured speakers such as comedian Jay Leno, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, columnist Peggy Noonan and pollster Frank Luntz — seemed to be angling for a return to the deal-making 1990s, when Bill Clinton worked with the GOP after it took over Congress.
“There’s much we can accomplish for the American people, if the president is willing to work with us,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the floor Friday.
But alongside those hopes for productivity, they readily acknowledge some of their most ambitious legislative plans are aimed at showing stark differences ahead of the 2016 elections.
"We’re going to take actions where we want to show the country how we would do things differently, pass our bold reform ideas, and know that the president won’t support them," Ways and Means Chairman Paul D. Ryan told reporters in Hershey.
But, Ryan continued, the second kind of action Republicans would take would be on items where the president and Congress could see eye to eye, like trade.
Fundamentally, the two sides remain at odds.
Obama wants more spending and higher taxes on the rich; new majority makers such as Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, picked by GOP leaders hopeful her heartland demeanor will win over voters, ran a campaign ad talking of castrating hogs to demonstrate her commitment to cutting spending and making Washington "squeal."
Republicans remain concerned about Obama's pen and phone as he looks to cement his legacy.
“What I’m hoping to hear is the president is going to work with us and not go it alone,” said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D.
But that hope might be fleeting. “Here he goes again on methane regulations, going his own way, making it harder for the private sector," Hoeven said.
But the elephant in the GOP retreat's conference room last week — and perhaps in the House chamber Tuesday night, is the debate over immigration and homeland security funding, which expires on Feb. 28.
Republicans are still searching for an exit strategy given they lack the votes to enact a House-passed bill's provisions rolling back Obama's executive actions granting deportation relief and work permits to many here illegally.
Senate Republicans, for starters, have no appetite to shut down the Department of Homeland Security.
“That’s off the table,” Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said last week.
Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said he understood the need work with the Senate on crafting legislation. But he said if Republicans "just try to march in place, we're going to get our butts kicked in the next election."
Much of the GOP retreat was about managing the expectations of conservatives like Salmon, particularly on Obamacare and the use of budget reconciliation rules to dismantle parts of the 2010 health care law with a simple majority vote in the Senate.
The developing GOP line on Obamacare is that Republicans should wait for a decision expected from the Supreme Court in June, which will rule on subsidies in states that did not set up their own health care exchanges.
Iowa Republican Steve King isn't interested in tempering the GOP's attacks on Obamacare.
But even he suggested at the retreat Republicans “should not have our sights set too high.”
King said Obama would veto most of the strongest GOP legislative proposals, and pretending that Republicans could enact conservative ideas wasn’t a helpful fiction.
“What we can do is lay good ideas out, send them to the president’s desk, and in doing so, we lay the foundation for the debate for the next president of the United States,” King said. “And that’s what actually changes the country.”
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