President Barack Obama is lucky he wasn’t running for re-election in 2013. The worst year of his presidency began with repudiation of his post-Newtown gun proposals in the Senate. Then he maneuvered so ineptly on the war in Syria that he had to be bailed out by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Also, despite more than three years of lead time, the rollout of his signature health reform was a disaster.
But the chance to talk at length on live TV to millions of Americans watching the State of the Union speech is always a chance for a president to shift the discussion, and Obama did that Tuesday night. Talk of guns or Syria took a backseat to the theme that Democrats hope will define this year’s midterm elections: economic opportunity.
Obama put forth the customary litany of American achievements and an optimistic vision spliced to an activist agenda designed to make a dent in the inequality that leaves millions of lower- and middle-class Americans feeling left behind, even as the economy finally rebounds from the Great Recession.
In this, he faces big obstacles. Republicans in Congress will stand in the way of many Obama initiatives. And there is only so much the federal government can do about a problem rooted in deep-seated trends such as globalization, technology and family breakdown.
Give Obama points for trying. He vowed a “year of action” — with or without support from recalcitrant congressional Republicans. Congress ignored his plea in last year’s speech to raise the federal minimum wage, and it is likely to do so again this year, so the president announced he was raising it by executive order for employees of federal contractors. “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families,” Obama said, “that’s what I’m going to do.”
As battered as Obama is, Republicans have their own problems. After being led into a politically disastrous government shutdown by its “tea party” wing, the GOP seems more open to traditional compromise on issues that make it vulnerable, most notably immigration. Hence Obama’s renewed insistence on passing an immigration overhaul that cleared the Senate last year but stalled in the GOP-led House.
Ultimately, Obama’s year of action is likely to turn into one of risk and opportunity stemming from the ghosts of 2013.
At home, the health law — which he robustly defended Tuesday — faces a new round of deadlines that will determine whether it unravels or succeeds despite the bungled website rollout. Most important, will enough healthy, young people enroll by March 31 to make the program economically viable?
Abroad, the nuclear talks with Iran could result in a huge breakthrough or yet another war in the world’s most volatile region.
Obama’s fumbling last year, combined with a determined opposition, created a paradox: a president with an approval rating of barely 40 percent despite an improving economy and stock market. Tuesday’s speech helped reframe the picture, but the competence of the artist will determine whether voters buy it.
— USA TODAY