A year ago, Barack Obama still enjoyed the glow of his re-election victory. The instinct was understandable: Test whether the dynamic of Washington had changed, whether Republicans and Democrats would find ways to bridge differences and address problems. Would the gunning down of children in Newtown, Conn., lead to measures restricting gun sales? Would Republicans see the benefits of joining in comprehensive immigration reform?
Soon enough, the president received the answers. Modest gun legislation stalled. So did immigration reform, even though Senate Democrats and some Republicans advanced the cause. Eventually, Republicans engineered a government shutdown, and the president harmed his own cause with a bungled launch of the website for the federal health insurance exchange, his standing in the polls taking a hit.
All of that set up the State of the Union address on Tuesday evening. The president made a point of saying that he is prepared to do what he can on his own, “with or without Congress,” as he defiantly put it. He placed emphasis on the continuing challenge of wider income inequality, or the country better navigating the wrenching changes of the new economy. He issued an executive order raising the minimum wage for future federal contract workers.
The president proposed routing funds currently available to increase broadband access for public schools. He has in hand the authority to reduce power plant emissions as part of taking the lead in addressing climate change.
This was a president stressing that “America does not stand still — and neither will I.” Yet there was much disappointment in play. If candidate Obama’s words about changing Washington often were over the top, there was hope about locating some common ground. The president has been more forthcoming than Republicans contend. Health-care reform serves as a good example. The Affordable Care Act contains many ideas Republicans once championed.
The tone of his address on Tuesday evening was revealing, more about opportunity than inequality. In that way, the president hasn’t abandoned entirely the concept of the parties acting together, crafting acceptable compromises.
Two items, in particular, are ripe for action. First, the need to extend emergency assistance for the long-term unemployed is plain. It would be both compassionate and productive, given the weak job market and fragile economy. Second, immigration reform would serve both parties and the country. The elements of a deal are there, a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants long and hardly easy. Will House Republicans follow the bipartisanship in the Senate? This isn’t something the president can do alone.