– White House warns Obama ready to ‘bypass’ Congress on 2014 agenda (Guardian, Jan 26, 2014):
White House officials are setting the scene for a confrontational state of the union address on Tuesday night, claiming that President Barack Obama is preparing to “bypass” Congress with executive action on divisive issues such as economic inequality.
However, in a flurry of last-minute appearances, advisers also hinted at a growing sense within the administration that the president’s chances of securing more ambitious legislative reform before November’s midterm elections may already have passed.
In an interview on Sunday and in an email to supporters on Saturday Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s senior adviser for strategy and communications, struck a defiant tone. “We need to show the American people that we can get something done; either through Congress or on our own,” Pfeiffer told CNN. “The president is not going to tell the American people he will wait for Congress.”
The White House press secretary, Jay Carney, spoke of a need to “bypass Congress where necessary”, telling ABC the State of the union would herald a “year of action” after the frustrations of 2013. Last year was the least productive in the history of Congress, including in October a 17-day government shutdown prompted by right-wing Republicans in an attempt to defund and defeat Obama’s signature healthcare reform.
Yet Pfeiffer compared the executive actions Obama intends to outline on Tuesday with recent White House initiatives such as hosting a college opportunity summit or declaring economic “promise zones”, which critics have dismissed as largely cosmetic.
Key policy objectives, such as increasing the national minimum wage or lowering the cost of access to higher education, are almost impossible to achieve without bipartisan legislation. Republicans view the mounting State of the Union rhetoric as largely about political jockeying, ahead of the midterm elections.
“It sounds vaguely like a threat and it’s certainly a kind of arrogance,” said Senator Rand Paul, who is increasingly seen as a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, in an interview on CNN.
Appearing on ABC on Sunday morning, a former candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Rick Santorum, called Obama “vindictive” and said his plan for greater use of executive action was “non-constructive”.
Those close to the Oval Office say they expect Obama to draw in his state of the union address on the success of local economic initiatives, as an example of what can be done to boost social mobility without the need for national legislation.
The mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, who visited the White House for the second time in a month on Thursday, told reporters he expected the address to champion initiatives in urban areas that Obama believes can be extended elsewhere.
“You’ll hear in the state of the union him address a number of specifics about cities, the focus on cities,” said Nutter. “You are going to hear about on-the-ground activities; what’s going on across the United States of America; why cities work, how they work.”
Nutter said he also expected the president to be unapologetic about the role of the national government in tackling poverty. “I think you will hear in the state of the union example after example of how federal support is working on the ground across the country,” he said.
Pfeiffer’s email to supporters, which was sent on Saturday, suggested that much of Obama’s speech will be about cajoling and supporting, rather than directing.
“The president will use his executive authority, both his pen and his phone, to work with anyone to get things done,” he wrote, “whether they be leaders in business, education, Congress, states, or local communities who want to get things done on behalf of the American people.
“Last week, President Obama kicked off this effort when he named five new promise zones – areas across the country where we will partner with local communities and businesses to create jobs and expand opportunity. We’ll do this by increasing access to education and quality, affordable housing, and by improving public safety. These are the kinds of efforts that take the challenges we face head on.”