More pulpit than bully, Obama speech showcased his limits

Olivier Knox
(Reuters/Charles Dharapak/Pool)
(Reuters/Charles Dharapak/Pool)

At the emotional climax of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday, victims of gun violence and relatives of those killed or maimed by shootings stood up in the packed House of Representatives chamber. Obama's voice rose and he passionately pressed Congress—to vote.

Not to vote for his proposed gun regulations. Just to vote on them.

Few moments in the 61-minute speech better illustrate the constraints Obama faces at the dawn of his second term, despite his convincing re-election victory and increased number of Democrats in Congress. Republicans control the House of Representatives and can block legislation in the Senate; the nation’s finances are in the red; and vulnerable Democrats up for re-election in 2014 aren’t eager to tack left on guns, climate change or many other goals Obama is championing.

Obama announced no major stimulus—just a $50 billion infrastructure proposal that has stalled in Congress since Obama first proposed it two years ago. There was no major national mission on the order of landing a man on the Moon.

On the economy, the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds, Obama kept things modest, too. He again rejected the Republican drive for austerity (“we can’t just cut our way to prosperity”) and pledged to push for fresh tax hikes on the wealthy (“broad-based economic growth requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue”) much as he had throughout the 2012 campaign.

On guns, Obama said “this time is different,” insisting the shootings of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., had swung public opinion toward greater regulation. He reiterated his list of “common-sense” prescriptions: tougher background checks to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and a renewed ban on assault weapons.

But Obama stopped short of pressing Congress to approve those measures.

“Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress,” he said. ”Now, if you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote.”

The approach may reflect shrewd political calculation. Mindful of the power of the National Rifle Association, White House officials see a possible Senate filibuster, or the refusal of the GOP-led House to even call an up-or-down vote, among the greatest obstacles to meaningful action.

If the gun violence package survives a deadly procedural obstacle course to reach an up-or-down vote, public opinion could make the difference. And red-state Democrats facing re-election in 2014 probably appreciate the softer sell.

But diminished expectations weighed the president down on other fronts as well.

On climate change, Obama seemed to threaten that if Congress won’t act to save the planet, he’ll get advice from his Cabinet.

“I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy,” he said to mostly Democratic applause.

It's quite a recalibration for a president who once called his own political rise “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

Obama pressed Congress to adopt a “market-based solution” to reduce the carbon emissions blamed for global warming. That could be a carbon pricing system, or a cap-and-trade regime, neither of which have particularly sunny prospects on Capitol Hill. He also urged new investments in clean energy and a national campaign to cut waste of power.

Environmental activists in Washington had hoped the president would sketch out something more robust. He could have announced that he was pressing ahead with clean-energy programs at the Department of Defense or tightening environmental measures at federal workplaces or even marshaling some of his power under existing federal law.

Here’s Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke, making that point in a statement that suggested hope tinged with frustration over Obama's words.

“The president has a full box of tools to strike back at climate chaos. The best tool he has is the Clean Air Act. It gives him the authority to reduce the carbon pollution from our dirtiest power plants, the single greatest threat to our climate future,” Beinecke said. “That will take presidential leadership. Americans are counting on it—and that’s what the president delivered tonight.”


Obama pressed Congress to find a way to avoid the so-called sequester, damaging across-the-board cuts to social spending and the Defense Department. But he also acknowledged the deficit as one of the major constraints on his agenda for the next four years.

“Nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime,” he said. “It is not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.” (Republicans pounced on that remark, noting the “should” not “will,” and highlighted the swelling national debt, now over $16 trillion.)

Liberals loved Obama's call to raise the minimum wage, a step Republicans oppose. And the president's pledge to deepen trade ties with Europe, expand early childhood education and promote manufacturing growth aren’t likely to be become political flash points—or provide much of a short-term shot in the arm to the sputtering recovery.

Immigration reform was one area where Obama did not temper expectations. Republicans, shell-shocked by their poor showing with Latino voters in November, seem eager to find a deal.

“The time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” the president said. “Now is the time to do it. Now is the time to get it done. Now is the time to get it done.”

He unapologetically pushed to create “a responsible pathway to earned citizenship” and emphasized “we know what needs to be done.”

“Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months, and I will sign it right away. And America will be better for it,” the president said.

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

As for Republicans, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s response amounted to putting old wine in new bottles—or in his case, new water. (Sorry.)

In a speech notable for how much Rubio repeatedly cited his own modest upbringing to blunt charges that the GOP favors the rich, his most telling comment was his charge that Obama considers capitalism “the cause of our problems.” (If that’s true, the president must be staggeringly incompetent, having overseen record corporate profits and a soaring stock market.)

That charge amounted to relitigating Mitt Romney’s failed case against Obama to the voters last year. The specifics of the speech, though, hinted at areas of possible compromise.

On immigration, Rubio did not use the word “citizenship,” referring instead to the need for “a responsible, permanent solution to the problem of those who are here illegally.”

“But first, we must follow through on the broken promises of the past to secure our borders and enforce our laws,” he said. That’s not a clear “no.” It’s more like an ordering of priorities.

Rubio seemed to signal compromise on education reform after Obama called for extending high-quality preschool nationally, overhauling technical education and improving access to college, notably by reining in runaway costs. Rubio agreed that college costs must come down and vocational education opportunities must expand, and he added traditional Republican goals like giving parents more school choice.

On guns, though, Rubio took a tougher line. “We must effectively deal with the rise of violence in our country,” he said. “But unconstitutionally undermining the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding Americans is not the way to do it.”

Maybe Congress will vote on that?