State of the Union addresses are about big ambitions, and Tuesday night's didn't disappoint. U.S President Barack Obama's many priorities -- job creation, middle-class earnings, infrastructure spending and all the others -- are the unfinished business of a president aware (and no doubt uneasy) that, in three years, he belongs to history.
How many of those aspirations can he achieve? Of 24 proposals in last year's address, Washington Post fact-checkers rate five as accomplished, four as partly complete and 15 -- notably gun control, immigration reform and a minimum-wage hike -- as dead letters. And at first glance, this year's prognosis wouldn't be that upbeat:
The Obamacare rollout soured many Americans on government-as-change-agent. Twitchy members of Congress avoid bold votes in election years. And Obama's approval ratings have tumbled. From the Post's report on its new poll with ABC News: "Just 37 per cent (of respondents) say they have either a good amount or a great deal of confidence in the president to make the right decisions for the country's future, while 63 per cent say they do not. Those numbers are the mirror image of what they were when he was sworn into office in 2009." Ouch.
Tuesday night, Obama didn't dwell on his lost 2013. There was an oblique nod to his gridlock with Congress last year: "Let's make this a year of action." The subtext: He has to wonder whether, if his signature health overhaul doesn't succeed, his presidency totals one year of managing through a financial crisis, followed by a biblical seven years of lean.
That's why his staffers have been broadcasting the message that Obama will try to circumvent Congress by marshaling his powers of office. Presidents of both parties have done that although it's often a frustrating way to rule: Congress can thwart (or refuse to fund) executive orders that lack the force of law. And subsequent presidents can undo those orders as breezily as they were written.
Listening to Obama, though, we heard two takeaways that should be his realistic agenda before the acceleration of presidential campaigning in 2015 certifies his lame-duckery. The point isn't that he can get Congress to do his bidding; he cannot. On these two issues, though, he can help Republicans and Democrats realize it's in their best interests to do as he asks:
-- Immigration reform should be a win-win-win for both parties and Obama.
-- He also can achieve his economic priorities for Americans, if he goes to Capitol Hill less as a base-pleasing populist than as a solutions-oriented pragmatist. Obama's 2013 plea for "bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit" went nowhere. Tuesday night he doubled down: "Let's work together to close those loopholes, end those incentives to ship jobs overseas, and lower tax rates for businesses that create jobs here at home."
That's a spectacularly accurate if too limited prediction of all that a reform to federal taxes and transfer programs could deliver. Even before his presidency began, Obama was saying the right things about the unsustainability of entitlement benefits; in budget wrangles with Republicans he has agreed to Medicare reforms.
Imagine the potential power of a president who'll never run again gathering his economic priorities into one package. A path to debt reduction, encouragements to hire more workers, elimination of tax deductions and credits that tend to benefit the wealthy, incentives to drive new growth: In one afternoon, Obama's policy team could draft an omnibus plan for financing federal operations, expanding the nation's workforce and assuring that today's benefits will exist for tomorrow's retirees. Stable and lower tax rates, paid for by scaling back those runaway deductions and credits, would benefit individuals and employers alike.
During Obama's presidency, efforts at a "Go Big" finance deal always have flopped. Now, as a second-termer with goals he wants to accomplish, he's liberated. He can bundle his proposals in bows appealing to both parties. Granted, with Obama inclined to govern by executive order rather than joust with Congress, this wouldn't be easy. But it could be done. Democrats and Republicans proved that with their tax megapackage late in Ronald Reagan's presidency.
Immigration reform, coupled with a rescue of federal finances and entitlement programs? Good for Obama, good for the historians who'll grade him -- and good for the future of America.
THUMBS UP, DOWN
Columnist Doyle McManus writes that Obama, for once, gave a realistic State of the Union Speech, while Jay Ambrose sees nothing but razzle dazzle obscuring a record of failure. Read them at wfp.to/comment