- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 30, 2014

President Obama and congressional Republicans both said this week they want to find common ground, but even though they share many of the same broad goals — putting Americans back to work, aiding a struggling middle class and promoting opportunity for all — there is little agreement on how to get there.

As the president moves ahead with his year of executive action, analysts say the public’s lack of faith in their elected leaders, old-fashioned political calculations and healthy egos on both sides are standing in the way of real progress.

“Nobody likes to stretch out a hand and lose … in these moments of gridlock, the [political] bases reign supreme because the argument becomes, ‘If we can’t solve things, everybody posture. Why demonstrate flexibility when you’re convinced the other side is obstinate?’” said Jason Grumet, founder and president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Arguing that there is a year of action that does not include congressional participation is pretty much par for the course. I don’t think it’s hurting things, but I don’t think it’s helping things.”

On Thursday, the president continued his post-State of the Union tour, touring a General Electric plant in Wisconsin and speaking about the economy at a Nashville high school. Since that address, Mr. Obama has moved ahead with increasing the minimum wage for all federal contractors, establishing new government-backed retirement accounts for all workers and instituting a full review, to be led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden, of federal training programs in an effort to better prepare Americans for the jobs of the 21st century.

Those goals and other executive steps the president plans to take are part of a much larger effort to jump-start the economy, boost more Americans into the middle class and combat growing income inequality — issues he’s prepared to confront to the degree that he can without involving lawmakers.

“America cannot stand still and neither will I. So wherever I can take steps to expand opportunity to help working families, that’s what I’m going to do, with or without Congress,” Mr. Obama said during a speech at the GE facility in Waukesha, Wis. “I want to work with them but I can’t wait for them.”

Republican leaders share many of the president’s central aims. Even though he blasted the president’s State of the Union speech for being short on new ideas, House Speaker John A. Boehner agrees with Mr. Obama on many of the key challenges facing the nation today.

“The real answer for the president is to refocus his priorities and work with us on things that we can achieve together to create jobs and promote greater opportunity … a solution to our broken immigration system, better skills and eduction programs, patent reform, new energy and water infrastructure or any of the dozens of other House-passed bills awaiting action,” the Ohio Republican said.

Political analysts say immigration reform remains the one big-ticket item that realistically could be tackled this year. In addition to representing a bipartisan breakthrough, it also would carry political benefits for Republicans, who desperately need to make inroads with Hispanic voters heading into the 2014 midterm elections and, ultimately, the 2016 presidential contest.

On economic issues, however, there’s much less hope. The two sides did manage to break the logjam and pass a two-year budget agreement late last year, but thus far, the momentum has not carried over and difficult challenges such as entitlement reform, a fundamental overhaul of the nation’s tax code and other issues remain outstanding for a variety of reasons.

For Republicans, there’s a desire to politically marginalize the president, while Mr. Obama and his fellow Democrats cannot be seen giving in to Republican demands heading into a crucial midterm election, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.

“It all adds up to a status quo standoff where the president tries to be optimistic, upbeat, do small things and hope that the economy gets some traction. But it looks like it could be a nerve-racking year,” Mr. Scala said, adding that both sides are, to a certain degree, unwilling to cave to the other side’s wish list.

“There’s ego involved, but also, from the Republican perspective, they’re saying, ‘Hey, the House is all but secure. The Senate appears to be in our grasp. Maybe we can make this president a completely lame duck by early November,’” he said.

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