Analysis: After bad year, Obama narrows to-do list
Coming off the worst year of his presidency, President Barack Obama is out to convince the American public that he can do better for the country in 2014 — even as his influence wanes with every passing day.
The president had a fine line to walk in Tuesday's State of the Union address: projecting the optimism and energy that dispirited members of his party, and the public at large, are hungry for without overpromising in an election year when congressional Republicans are even less likely to cooperate than they were in 2013.
Where last year's State of the Union to-do list was an ambitious call to arms on issues such as gun control and immigration, this year's promised to be more modest, in keeping with the narrowing scope of what's doable for a president in a standoff with House Republicans and whose party stands to lose ground in the Senate in the midterm elections.
The White House promised a message brimming with optimism, opportunity, action.
Where Congress won't cooperate, Obama aims to find creative ways to act on his own, through executive orders, regulatory action, presidential cajoling and the like.
But creativity is no substitute for clout.
And an executive order on job training or retirement security doesn't have the zing of an $800 billion stimulus plan or an overhaul of the health care system.
Obama's first unilateral action under his new strategy — raising the minimum wage for federal contractors — drew derision from Republicans.
House Speaker John Boehner stressed that the change would affect only new contracts, meaning the number of workers likely to be affected "is somewhere close to zero."
Still, bite-sized steps may be a better fit for these times than grand legislative proposals that would likely fall flat, as did last year's calls for action on gun control and immigration reform.
The economy is better, even if not everyone's feeling it yet. The unemployment rate is lower, even if 6.7 percent still isn't great. The health care law is taking effect, even if it's causing heartburn for plenty of Americans.
With Congress unlikely to deal on most issues, Obama must keep expectations low, without putting people into a funk.
If they're not already there, that is.
Polls show people are pessimistic about the country's direction and the condition of the economy. Seventy percent think unemployment will stay the same or get worse in the next year.
As for Obama himself, "both his supporters and his opponents are worried that he has lost his enthusiasm and his energy for the political contest," says Calvin Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Jillson points to Obama's own comments in a recent interview that he's "overexposed" and that it's natural for people to want something new "after six, seven years of me being on the national stage."
Obama had, by all accounts, an awful 2013: His top legislative priorities went nowhere, Edward Snowden's revelations about government spying caused an uproar, the launch of his health-care plan was plagued with problems and a budget dispute led to the first government shutdown in nearly two decades. Looking forward, he faces the prospect of diminishing power: his party is expected to lose ground in the midterm congressional elections and public focus increasingly will turn to the contest to select his successor.
But Obama insists that with three more years in the Oval Office, he's still passionate about the issues that matter.
The speech was an opportunity to try and revive that same passion in the public — within bounds.
Robert Reich, who served in former President Bill Clinton's Cabinet, said people want "realistic reassurances" about the future. "In other words," Reich says, "they would be receptive to sensible executive orders and regulations."
Sensible, not sensational.
Yes, the president can still accomplish things by stretching the limits of his executive powers — and Republicans can counter with time-tested complaints about job-killing, over-reaching Democrats.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, speaking ahead of Obama's speech, said that by this point, the public's seen "just about everything in the president's toolbox," and deemed it a "years-long clinic on the failures of liberalism."
Both sides of that argument will sound familiar to conflict-weary Americans.