Coming to the Hill and chiding Congress for its inaction may be one of President Barack Obama’s favorite pastimes — it helped him win re-election in 2012 — and the first State of the Union of his second term did not deviate from his well-established norm.
With significant hurdles ahead for Obama’s legislative wish list — including more money for the nation’s infrastructure, an expansion of pre-kindergarten programs and raising the minimum wage to $9 — the president yet again prodded lawmakers to get over their partisanship, particularly on the fiscal issues that have driven them time and again to the brink of a government shutdown.
“The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next. We can’t do it,” Obama told lawmakers Tuesday. “Let’s agree, right here, right now, to keep the people’s government open, pay our bills on time and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America. The American people have worked too hard, for too long, rebuilding from one crisis to see their elected officials cause another.”
Those lecture-like comments drew only small pockets of applause — a sign of why Obama’s relationship with Congress, particularly Republicans, remains strained.
And though he’s taking his agenda on the road this week to North Carolina, Georgia and Illinois, it’s unclear how much public pressure the president will be able to rouse. The campaign-style push is already angering Republicans, and he’s certainly not winning back friends on the Hill, where egos bruise easily and memories are long.
“Actually, being negative toward the Congress is even more of a consistent move for the president than pivoting the eighth time to jobs,” Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a member of the GOP leadership team, quipped Tuesday afternoon before Obama’s speech.
Indeed, the president’s penchant for looking down his nose at Congress has become so pervasive and routine that it barely registers as a compelling theme to Republican staffers preparing their bosses to take a beating from Obama on national television. The GOP has seen this movie before, the thinking goes.
One senior Senate Republican aide said: “He’s just another person who doesn’t like Congress — it doesn’t make him anything special, it makes him an American citizen.”
Many sources on both sides of the aisle are resigned to the idea that one person who does still like Congress — Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a longtime creature of body — will be their chief point of contact in the administration. He is the clean-up guy who will have to deal with the tough issues on the ground after the presidential sermon is over.
That may be especially true when Senate Democrats attempt to move a bill dealing with gun violence and when they attempt to talk House Republicans into approving a long-stalled Violence Against Women Act reauthorization. Whether the White House will allow Biden to maneuver freely could determine how much of the agenda Obama laid out Tuesday night will become reality.
Biden’s success in the face of Congress’ disdain for dealing with Obama is not without precedent.
In the closing days of the fiscal cliff debate, he was the one who stepped in to negotiate with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., at the last minute and then sold the deal to a skeptical Democratic caucus.
And it was Biden who tried to work with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., to resolve the differences between the parties on VAWA.
For Obama, patching up relationships with Democrats, which have at times frayed during the president’s tenure, could be his most important order of business. When campaigning for re-election, Obama often failed to distinguish between “congressional Republicans” and Congress, half of which was run by his own party, in trying to play the foil to an institution with record-high disapproval ratings.
Democrats say they’re less concerned about that now, even though they’re still fighting to win back the House and maintain their expanded Senate majority.
Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., said he believed Obama understands the important role Congress plays in executing his agenda, even though the president announced Tuesday evening plans to go around them on issues such as cybersecurity. Earlier this year, he announced he would take 23 executive actions on guns to circumvent the legislature.
“I think the president understands he can’t enact any laws without Congress passing those laws, so he wants to work with Congress. I expect that he’ll make that point very clear — that we have to work together — but he has a constitutional responsibility to point out when issues are not being dealt with that the American people expect Congress to take up and work out their differences,” Cardin said Tuesday afternoon.
Cardin said that while “it’s been pretty clear to the American people that those who want gridlock in Washington are those on the Republican side,” some in the GOP have reached out on changing Senate filibuster rules and on immigration overhaul plans.
The Maryland Democrat added that he hoped Obama would embrace a more “positive message of working together,” instead of a negative tone that might further alienate the GOP.
In speeches past, the president has always dinged the opposition, be it the Republican Party or Congress itself.
“As long as I’m president, I will work with anyone in this chamber to build on this momentum. But I intend to fight obstruction with action, and I will oppose any effort to return to the very same policies that brought on this economic crisis in the first place,” Obama said in 2012.
“We can’t wage a perpetual campaign where the only goal is to see who can get the most embarrassing headlines about the other side, a belief that if you lose, I win. Neither party should delay or obstruct every single bill just because they can,” Obama said in 2010.
Tuesday night, even when Obama wasn’t expressly criticizing Congress, he was alienating Republicans who were already annoyed that he outlined an aggressively liberal agenda in his Jan. 21 inaugural speech.
His State of the Union was not much different in that regard, despite the president’s focus on boosting the economy. Indeed, Obama returned to the same theme that helped him get re-elected: economic fairness.
“It is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country — the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, what you look like, or who you love,” Obama said.
Then he challenged Congress to find a way to find compromise. “The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem,” the president said. “They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party. They do expect us to forge reasonable compromise where we can.”
It’s unclear whether 2013 will be the year when Congress finally heeds Obama’s call, but even if the parties came together, it likely wouldn’t be because he asked them to.