- Associated Press - Monday, February 3, 2014

The Detroit Free Press. Jan. 29.

A chastened president charts a solitary path forward

Americans are likely nowhere near as divided as their elected representatives in Washington, but there seems little prospect for successful bipartisan collaboration as President Barack Obama begins his sixth year in the White House.

On Tuesday night, in his fifth State of the Union address, the embattled president outlined plans to advance his agenda, even if the Republican-controlled House continues to resist it.

“I’m eager to work with all of you,” Obama told members of Congress gathered for his nationally televised speech. “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 Americans families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Obama comes by his frustration honestly. The signature legislative achievement of his presidency - a desperately needed initiative to extend quality health care to millions of uninsured Americans - was modeled on a proposal originally championed by Republican President Richard Nixon and implemented, with initially promising results, by Republican Mitt Romney when he served as Massachusetts’ governor. Yet, Obama’s plan did not attract a single GOP vote, and House Republicans have made its repeal the centerpiece of their own retrograde agenda.

A year ago, fresh off his resounding re-election victory and riding a 57 percent approval rating, Obama was nevertheless stone-walled in his efforts to reduce gun violence or reform immigration law. This past fall, Republican efforts to defund the Affordable Care Act culminated in 16-day government shutdown, a spectacle of bureaucratic ineptitude eclipsed only by the stumbling debut of the president’s health reform.

Since early December, when he described growing income inequality as “the defining issue of our time,” Obama has repeatedly signaled his intention to make middle-class opportunity the lodestar of his second term. “I will measure myself at the end of my presidency,” he told journalist David Remnick in an interview published in last week’s New Yorker, “in large part by whether I began the process of rebuilding the middle class and the ladders into the middle class, and reversing the trend toward economic bifurcation in this country.”

On Tuesday night, Obama outlined a number of initiatives he is prepared to take unilaterally if congressional Republicans refuse to confront the widening chasm between the wealthiest Americans and the 99 percent of wage-earners who have claimed just 5 percent of the nation’s economic growth since the 2008 recession.

He promised to streamline permitting for public infrastructure projects that boost employment. He said he was ordering the Treasury Department to offer a new retirement savings instrument for workers who lack pensions or 401(k) plans, and he challenged lawmakers to surround the new instrument with tax incentives similar to those offered to wealthy investors.

He urged Congress to restore the long-term unemployment benefits it recently allowed to lapse and to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10, but said he would lead by example by ordering the same pay hike for all federal contractors’ minimum-wage employees.

The president was also unyielding in defense of the Affordable Care Act, warning its critics that Americans will not abide the dismantling of a new health care regime that is already providing coverage to millions of previously uninsurable policyholders.

Immigration is the policy arena in which Democrats and Republicans have the best chance to collaborate successfully. Obama repeated a call for comprehensive reform that he has made in four past State of the Union speeches. But this time, spurred by strategists who want to boost the GOP’s standing with Hispanics and governors (including Michigan’s Rick Snyder) who link more immigration to economic growth, GOP lawmakers may be more receptive.

It is a little sad to hear the president (who seized the nation’s imagination 10 years ago by asserting that blind partisanship was passe) making plans to govern around the margins of an obdurate opposition party. But that may be the best we can hope for in a gridlocked Washington where congressional inaction has become just another obstacle to middle-class opportunity.

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