It was one of the best one-liners of any recent State of the Union address: President Obama, joking about government waste, said the Commerce Department is in charge of salmon fishing in saltwater, the Interior Department handles them when they’re in freshwater — “and I hear it gets even more complicated once they’re smoked.”
The quip drew guffaws from lawmakers assembled for the 2011 speech. But two years later, it is one of the many State of the Union promises that got away.
Presidents of both parties regularly use these addresses to deliver what one scholar called a “policy garbage can” — the sorts of things that a chief executive would do if he were king.
Of 20 policies Mr. Obama called for in last year’s address and reviewed by The Washington Times, he has checked off eight, and two others are still in the works. But most of those he was able to accomplish through administration actions.
Three of his accomplishments involved congressional action: extending the payroll-tax cut through 2012, enacting a ban on insider trading for members of Congress, and halting an interest-rate hike for student loans. Of those, only the insider-trading bill is permanent.
Analysts said he likely will renew his call this year for some of the 10 other proposals he didn’t get finished — but will make clear he also is willing to take executive action if Congress doesn’t cooperate.
“I’ve seen a lot of State of the Unions, and usually they’re a wish list, and a president doesn’t get half of what he wishes for, but he keeps plugging on those he thinks are important,” said Donald Wolfensberger, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who studies Congress. “My understanding is tonight [the president] will be making reference to a number of executive orders he will be taking initiative on, rather than waiting for Congress.”
Indeed, that’s the route he took in 2012, when he used his speech to highlight orders he issued calling for more leasing of offshore lands for oil and gas exploration, clearing up what he said was red tape holding up federal construction projects, and pushing for more clean-energy production on federal lands.
He also established a financial crimes unit designed to go after big Wall Street players the administration suspects of fraud, and created a trade-enforcement branch to push back against what the U.S. thinks are unfair practices by foreign trading partners.
Many federal agencies clammed up when asked whether Mr. Obama followed through on pledges. The Justice, Commerce and Education departments, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, all failed to return messages asking about 2012 wish-list items within their purviews.
But the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office said the enforcement branch Mr. Obama set up last year has made great strides, providing analysis and research that bolstered U.S. filings with the World Trade Organization on some of China’s export controls and import licensing by Argentina and Indonesia.
In the case of China’s automobile exports, the unit analyzed provincial government actions to see if they counted as illegal subsidies, said Carol J. Guthrie, assistant U.S. trade representative for public affairs.
The government’s deep deficits repeatedly have helped sink the president’s calls for more stimulus and infrastructure spending, which is why on Tuesday he was expected to pointedly note that his new round of job-creation plans is paid for by taxes elsewhere.
“Let me repeat — nothing I’m proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime,” he said in his prepared remarks. “It’s not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth.”
But his calls for tax increases also have met with resistance in the past. His 2012 State of the Union push for a minimum corporate tax, his demand for a new transaction fee on Wall Street deals, and the “Buffett rule” minimum tax rate for the wealthy all failed.
Also left undone from 2012 was the Dream Act to legalize illegal-immigrant young adults brought to the U.S. as children.
Mr. Obama also called for docking federal funds from universities that don’t do more to control their tuition costs, and said he wanted to push clean-energy tax credits for buildings that modernize themselves.
Those are standard fare for these addresses.
“The State of the Union, while acting as the president’s primary stage for attempting to set the legislative agenda, is also a policy ‘garbage can,’” said Gerhard Peters, a professor at Citrus College who co-directs the American Presidency Project, which documents the history of the chief executive.
Mr. Peters said White Houses are inundated every year with requests from federal agencies and interest groups looking for some presidential love in the big speech.
“The State of the Union often serves as an excellent avenue for the president to satisfy these requests, often effectively ‘disposing’ of them,” Mr. Peters said, pointing to President George W. Bush’s call for development of hydrogen cars as an example of a policy initiative neither he nor Congress ever followed up on.
For Mr. Obama, the call for streamlining government, highlighted by his salmon joke, falls into that category.
He made his first call for streamlined government in his 2011 speech, but failed to act until just before his 2012 address, when he said he would send legislation to Congress. Last February, he finally did.
Senate Democrats held a hearing on the legislation, but neither chamber bothered to vote on it. Republicans and Democrats say they agree with the White House that there is a problem. But the two sides can’t agree on how to go about solving it.
That has left the Commerce Department still in charge of salmon when they’re in saltwater, the Interior Department overseeing endangered-species efforts for salmon in freshwater — and all of them still liable to be smoked if they’re caught.
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Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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