WASHINGTON – The state of the economy remains fragile, and the state of the government remains deeply divided.
President Obama didn’t put it that bluntly, but that seemed likely to be an underlying theme of his annual State of the Union address Tuesday tonight.
The speech he delivered echoed the hints and leaks that the administration has been placing in the media for weeks.
The bottom line?
If Congress remains too paralyzed to act to address growing concerns about an economic recovery that has left millions of Americans behind, then Obama will.
“What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” he said. “Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The trouble is, the president can do only so much on his own – and even doing that threatens to divide the country more deeply.
For proof, take a close look at the president’s plan to unilaterally raise the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors to $10.10 an hour from the current $7.25.
It’s difficult to say exactly how many people will get a raise because of Obama’s action But Rep. Keith M. Ellison, D-Minn., recently told the Washington Post that conversations with the White House led him to believe that at least 200,000 workers will benefit.
The trouble is, that’s just a very small share of the nation’s low wage workforce. After all, the National Employment Law Project projected that about a quarter of private-sector workers in 2011 made less than $10 an hour in 2011.
The best statistics here are unfortunately out of date and inexact, but let’s just say the one-in-four figure stayed steady to the end of last year, when about 115 million people were employed in the private sector.
Multiply that figure by a quarter, and you’ll see that Obama’s much-touted executive action would likely still leave way more than 25 million Americans toiling for less than $10.10 an hour.
What’s more, Obama’s executive action is likely to win him no friends in a Republican Party where he has few friends to begin with.
“I think it’s going to just make it very difficult for Republicans to coalesce around any proposals that he may be making in other areas,” Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, said after the speech.
“There’s a level of distrust and animosity that was make worse tonight.”
Then again, one could argue that a long-standing toxic environment in Washington is what’s prompting Obama’s go-it-alone-when-I-can approach.
Obama aides have been touting the semi-new approach as a “pen and phone” strategy in which he will sign more executive orders to further his agenda while using the bully pulpit of the presidency to carry his message to the country.
“There’s almost like a recognition that problems are not going to be solved by Congress, but are going to be solved by individuals,” Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said after the speech.
Despite recent signs of progress – a bipartisan budget deal and a bipartisan Farm Bill – Higgins is right to see lethargy in the legislative branch.
Immigration reform – a top priority of most Democrats and one that many Republicans privately embrace as key to their party’s future – remains stuck in a stalemate.
Long-term solutions to the nation’s debt and its main drivers in the coming decades, Medicare and Social Security, have essentially disappeared from the D.C. discussion.
And despite dozens of failed Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” almost nothing has been finalized in Congress to actually improve it.
The trouble with Obama’s small-ball strategy, though, is that it does comparatively little to address those big issues – or even the issue that was at the heart of his speech: the economy.
For proof, let’s just compare the other executive actions Obama promised to take to boost the economy with the more expansive legislation he wants from Congress.
The executive actions include:
• The establishing four new institutes to boost manufacturing.
• Conducting a governmentwide review of federal job training programs.
• Jawboning businesses, community colleges and labor unions into expanding apprenticeship programs.
• Creating a volunteer “myRA” savings account to help people save for retirement.
Meanwhile, the more larger demands for congressional action include a $10.10 minimum wage for all workers, immigration reform and a comprehensive infrastructure package, as well as extending emergency unemployment insurance to 2 million people, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit to benefit 15 million families and changing the tax code to automatically enroll people in Individual Retirement Accounts.
Obviously, there’s no comparison between the smaller executive actions Obama wants to take and the real laws he wants passed.
And that’s why lawmakers such as Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, think Obama should focus on working with Congress rather than going it alone.
“Overall, I’m interested in hearing the attainable shared goals so Congress and the president have a realistic chance at seeing to fruition,” Reed said before the speech.
“Typically in these annual speeches we hear a laundry list of the party in the White House, but in a divided government, the best way to make progress is to find common ground and move forward. A ‘my way or the highway’ attitude won’t cut it – Americans want to hear what we can achieve together.”
State of the Union highlights:
• A call for Congress to address income inequality.
• Executive action to raise minimum wage for new federal contract workers to $10.10.
• Help for long-term unemployed to find work.
• Expansion of job-training programs.
• A push for sweeping immigration reforms.
• Increased access to early childhood programs.
• Spirited defense of federal Affordable Care Act, often called “Obamacare.”