Obama’s State of the Union: Jobs! Guns! Immigration! Climate! Gridlock?

Olivier Knox
The Ticket

Virtually every State of the Union address carries the same presidential message: Now is the time for Americans to set aside partisan politics … and do what I want. So what does President Barack Obama want? Can he sell it to skeptical Republicans? Or can he act alone? And where will the sputtering recovery figure as he lays out his priorities?

Obama steps up in the packed House of Representatives chamber tonight for a prime-time speech that will be his best chance to shape the national agenda at the dawn of his second term. Many of his ambitious goals are already on the table—and face considerable Republican opposition.

The slaughter of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., led the president to push a package of proposals to reduce gun violence, while Republican fretting over the party’s poor showing in November with Latino voters created an opening to drive immigration reform. And devastating Superstorm Sandy has breathed new life into Obama’s campaign to curb global warming.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations,” Obama declared in his inaugural address. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”

But the faltering recovery from the Great Recession means that Obama will have to talk about … exactly what he talked about four years ago: jobs. It’s the top issue on voters’ minds--well ahead of immigration, or climate change, or gun violence, and narrowly beating out acting to reduce the deficit.

Speaking to Democrats at their issues retreat in Leesburg, Va., last week, the president sketched out some of his message, promising to build “an economy that works for everybody.”

“That means that what you’ll hear from me next week, I’m going to be talking about making sure that we’re focused on job creation here in the United States of America,” he vowed. He also said he would promote access to education and push ahead with a “clean-energy strategy.”

GOP officials have been pressing the point that Obama can no longer blame his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, for the state of the economy. White House press secretary Jay Carney on Monday underlined that Obama inherited an economy in “freefall” and described job growth as the president’s “principal preoccupation.”

(By the way: Immigration? Clean energy? Education? All parts of Bush’s first second-term State of the Union—and all eclipsed by his call for the partial privatization of Social Security, which failed.)

But Republicans—who control the House of Representatives and have enough Senate seats to thwart Obama’s agenda there—have thus far given a chilly welcome to his calls to boost infrastructure spending as a way to spur the economy.

And along with red-state Democrats, they’ve signaled that they will block Obama’s call for an assault weapons ban (though they may still embrace other responses to gun violence, like enforcing background checks of would-be buyers at gun shows, or boosting funding for mental health).

Obama has a potent partner on immigration in Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, but immigration reform has seemed on track before—only to derail amid fighting over whether and how to offer the estimated 8 million to 11 million undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. But Democrats were quick to highlight Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s call on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday for those who came to U.S. soil as children to be given that chance.

As for climate change, House Democrats are still smarting from 2010 midterm election losses partly blamed on the party’s embrace of a cap-and-trade plan, while Republicans have shown no appetite for such a grand scheme.

The two sides are also at war over damaging, automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester. Obama has called for a “balanced” approach grouping tax increases on the rich and corporations with spending cuts. Republicans have rejected new tax hikes.

The White House, aware of the likelihood of fresh partisan gridlock, may fall back on steps it can take without congressional approval—much as Obama did throughout the 2012 campaign with his “We Can’t Wait” executive actions on jobs.

That may prove especially true on climate change. Obama could order new energy conservation steps at federal buildings, press ahead with the Pentagon’s campaign to use clean energy, or even—if he’s willing to clash with Republicans and coal-state Democrats—tighten carbon emission rules on existing power plants.

Obama is also expected to push Congress to confirm at least two of his embattled nominees: Republican former Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary and Richard Cordray to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

And the president is likely to update Americans on the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the broader war on terrorism and the standoff with Iran. At a recent security conference in Munich, Vice President Joe Biden said Obama would be “advancing a comprehensive nuclear agenda to strengthen the nonproliferation regime, reduce global stockpiles and secure nuclear materials.” The New York Times suggested Obama could act on this without Congress.

What about what he once described as “changing the tone” in Washington? Obama appears to have learned what Bush did: That promising, in effect, that "my opponents won’t criticize me" doesn’t work.

And while members of Congress have made a big show of sitting with members of the other party, it’s a bit like the political equivalent of a comb-over—to anyone who knows Washington, it looks odd, and it fools no one.

Obama made little or no mention in his inaugural address of compromising with Republicans. But since his first postelection press conference, when he declared himself “more than familiar with all the literature about presidential overreach in second terms,” Obama has bemoaned political partisanship.

At the National Prayer Breakfast last week, he said: “I do worry sometimes that as soon as we leave the prayer breakfast, everything we've been talking about the whole time at the prayer breakfast seems to be forgotten—on the same day of the prayer breakfast.

“I mean, you'd like to think that the shelf life wasn't so short,” he added. “But I go back to the Oval Office and I start watching the cable news networks and it's like we didn’t pray.”

As he told fellow Democrats in Leesburg, "It's important "not to read too much into any particular political victory—because this country is big, it is diverse, it is contentious, and we don’t have a monopoly on wisdom, and we need to remember that.”

But time is short. Presidents in their second term frequently see their influence on domestic policy drop off sharply after the midterm election, or even sooner. Obama made clear in his first postelection press conference that he feels that urgency.

"I didn’t get re-elected just to bask in re-election," he said. "I got elected to do work on behalf of American families and small businesses all across the country who are still recovering from a really bad recession, but are hopeful about the future."

The president will try to capitalize on his bully pulpit moment with a Wednesday trip to Asheville, N.C., to visit a manufacturer of engine, transmission and driveline components. He will also travel to Atlanta, Ga., on Thursday, and then home to Chicago on Friday for another event.