SMALL BALL: Obama downsizes ambition as agenda stalls

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For President Obama, the biggest speech of the year has become smaller and smaller.

After laying out broad, ambitious goals around immigration reform, a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s tax code and serious action against climate change — proposals that, to a large degree, remain unfulfilled — in his first several State of the Union addresses, analysts say the president has made a subtle shift toward micropolicies and more specific, targeted ideas that are able to clear a gridlocked Congress or be enacted through executive action.


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Indeed, one of the most notable parts of Tuesday night’s address was Mr. Obama’s plan to raise the minimum wage for federal contracts to $10.10 from $7.25, a substantial change but one that only underscores how this administration has been unable to muscle through Congress a broader minimum wage increase.

“Over the past five years, his number of requests have increased, but the requests have gotten smaller. He started out with some very big, very bold proposals, but eventually, when you look at [more recent speeches], the kinds of things he’s promising and asking for are smaller policies,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has written extensively on presidential speeches, including State of the Union addresses.

“Historically, the last couple of State of the Unions have been [full of] these small, penny-ante policies that haven’t amounted to that much,” Mr. Rottinghaus said.

The scaling-back of this year’s speech is a fact acknowledged in advance even by some of Mr. Obama’s closest Capitol Hill allies.

The speech won’t put forth “a grandiose agenda. It’s going to be a very practical agenda aimed at middle-class people,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, told The Wall Street Journal.

Just after taking office in 2009, Mr. Obama delivered a speech to a joint of session of Congress. While not technically a State of the Union address, it attracted much the same media coverage and included a similar type of broad agenda-setting. During that speech, Mr. Obama talked of cutting the federal deficit in half in four years, enacting fundamental tax reform, closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and other goals on which the administration has fallen short.


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“These were all promises out of that [first term] notion of hubris. As he moved forward, the proposals became smaller and more manageable,” Mr. Rottinghaus said.

A speechwriter for Ronald Reagan told Time magazine in an interview that presidents run out of big things to propose during their second terms.

“Usually the problem is the gas tank’s running on empty, and Obama has used up most of his big initiatives early on. So the challenge is to have something fresh to say,” Kenneth Khachigian said. “I worked on Reagan’s ‘87 State of the Union, and it was a challenge because we had really no new initiatives, nothing earthshaking, and so we were basically left with a tour de raison of past big achievements.”

Last year’s address, while including big ideas such as immigration reform, gun control and other proposals that dominated newspaper front pages in the days after the speech, still illustrated the scaled-down approach.

The president proposed more “manufacturing hubs” across the country to spur innovation and cooperation among universities, the federal government and private industry. He recently announced the creation of the second such hub in Raleigh, N.C.

He also challenged American businesses and families to increase energy efficiency at their facilities and homes, a targeted part of a larger agenda to fight climate change.

The president didn’t ask Congress to pass a broad, permanent K-12 education reform bill as did in recent years, but instead focused on smaller programs to expend pre-K education and make college more affordable.

Other scaled-down aims included the creation of a bipartisan voting commission designed to identify and eliminate barriers Americans may encounter on their way to polling places.

The larger ideas mentioned last year, all of which had been put forth in previous State of the Union speeches, have gone nowhere.

In Tuesday’s speech, for example, Mr. Obama again highlighted the threats from global warming and vowed to limit carbon emissions. But he did not call for a cap-and-trade style bill as he has done in years past, instead vowing to use regulations and other forms of executive authority.

“That’s why I directed my administration to work with states, utilities and others to set new standards on the amount of carbon pollution our power plants are allowed to dump into the air,” he said.

Immigration reform also has yet to clear the House, despite some bipartisan support. Gun control went nowhere amid stiff opposition from lawmakers and outside special-interest groups. Comprehensive tax reform, which has been a part of each of Mr. Obama’s State of the Union addresses, remains an uphill battle.

“He keeps talking about these things in similar ways. It’s a problem for him. It makes it look like the power of the presidency is pretty weak. It makes it look like his power as a bargainer is pretty week,” Mr. Rottinghaus said.

But those big-picture failures and the more targeted nature of his recent speeches don’t mean Mr. Obama has failed entirely on major proposals.

In 2010, the president’s State of the Union address focused a great deal on health care reform. Less than two months later, the Affordable Care Act cleared Congress after one of the most contentious political fights in recent history.

He also vowed to extend college tax credits and was successful in getting that accomplished.

The president promised to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and American presence in those two countries decreased in subsequent years.

In 2011, he announced that it was time to replace the No Child Left Behind education law with a program “that’s more flexible and focused on what’s best for our kids.” His administration did replace the law through executive action, establishing a system of waivers that allows states to escape mandates of the federal education act if they propose reforms that meet the White House’s approval.

In 2012, he dedicated a large portion of his speech to energy, vowing that the nation would pursue an “all-of-the-above” strategy that included developing vast U.S. oil and natural gas reserves. The U.S. now is on track to achieve, within a decade, independence from energy produced outside North America.

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