The man sitting over the president’s left shoulder Tuesday night, Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, shouldn’t expect too much in the way of conciliation — beyond rhetorical flourishes — as President Barack Obama tries to lay claim in detail to an expansive second-term mandate.
Indeed, a confident, re-elected president is expected to ask Congress to finally overcome its perpetual gridlock to act on job creation, the deficit, immigration, guns and much more. But Obama won’t really be talking to Boehner or the rest of Congress at all. Having been burned multiple times in one-on-one talks with the speaker and other congressional Republicans over the past few years, all indications are that the president is planning on using the bully pulpit once again to try to get public opinion on his side and put pressure on his political adversaries.
After all, Obama has kept up a steady stream of campaign-style appearances and transformed his formidable campaign apparatus into a new advocacy organization. That will continue after the State of the Union address with Obama flying to North Carolina, Georgia and Illinois in the following days.
The hardball, talk-to-the-hand approach so far has worked; Obama got an all-revenue deal during the fiscal-cliff negotiations, and momentum has surged for an immigration accord on the wave of Hispanic voters who helped fuel Obama’s big Electoral College majority.
White House aides have long maintained that the administration’s successes have come from an outside-in push rather than through closed-door negotiations and schmoozing with GOP lawmakers. As a result, Tuesday’s speech will be as much about enlisting the public as it will Congress, as both the White House and Congress head into battle over the March 1 start of the sequester, a potential Easter government shutdown and a reprise of the debt ceiling fight in May.
The White House has been busy talking up “jobs” legislation for the State of the Union, and those poll-tested, tried-and-true items such as spending on infrastructure, new manufacturing initiatives or hiring police officers and teachers are a staple for the president.
Press Secretary Jay Carney on Monday said that while there has been an emphasis on immigration and gun violence, Obama’s speech will focus on his top priority, “which is to get this economy growing, get it creating jobs, strengthening the middle class and expanding the middle class.”
Unfortunately for the president, his jobs initiatives have typically wound up as cannon fodder for a House GOP intent on slashing spending, not adding to it. And the president’s certain call for more revenue from Congress already has the GOP crying foul, given the fiscal-cliff deal allowing tax rates to rise for the wealthy.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., indicated Monday that he is expecting a repeat of past fiscal dramas, including last-minute bills that he said are designed to fail.
“Then comes the final act. President Obama rides in to blame everyone else. Obviously tomorrow’s State of the Union address would provide a perfect forum for that, so we’ll see if history repeats itself once again,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
McConnell said it’s time for the president to propose spending cuts to replace the sequester, but instead, he’s expecting another campaign blitz. And that’s surely what he’s going to get.
“The next time the president delivers some over-the-top speech flanked by some pollster-approved voter group, I hope someone on the stage taps him on the shoulder and asks, ‘Mr. President, if you’re truly worried about this issue, why aren’t you working with Congress that we elected to prevent it?’” he said.
Instead, the White House has been busy readjusting its positions and offers in a decidedly more liberal way — with Carney reiterating Monday that an increase in the Medicare eligibility age remains off the table, even though the White House offered to gradually hike it back in 2011. And Obama’s demand that revenue be part of any short-term deal to delay those automatic spending cuts slated for March 1 ensures another showdown in just a few weeks. But it will happen on comfortable ground for the president, where he pits popular programs for the middle class against tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy.
That fairness doctrine helped win him the White House, while the GOP’s poll ratings have taken a dive. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed the approval rating of Congressional Republicans dropping to 19 percent, with 51 percent of Republicans disapproving. Though the president’s approval rating has dipped, the same poll showed him with a healthier 46 percent rating.
Aside from the budgetary matters, Obama will also have emotional cards to play — more than two dozen lawmakers have announced plans to bring shooting victims to the speech.
The president also may set the stage for doing more end-runs around Congress — whether it be in tackling climate change or ordering an end to discrimination against gays by federal contractors. He’s facing efforts from advocates on both issues given the unlikelihood of congressional action.
And, as always, the congressional reaction may set the tone more than the laundry list of the speech itself. How heartily do Republicans clap for their newly claimed interest in an immigration overhaul? Are there any outbursts as the president demands new gun control? How will the “it” Republican of the moment, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, fare in his response?
It’s worth watching.