Obama's State of the Union to Focus on Economy, Executive Action

The president will pitch unilateral action in the face of congressional resistance.

President Barack Obama talks about National Security Agency surveillance on Friday, Jan. 17, 2014, at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.

The economy, surely, will be the main focus of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.

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President Barack Obama heads into his State of the Union address Tuesday night with a varied agenda – trying to get things done, trying to convince Republicans to support some of his initiatives and trying to lay down potential election themes for Democrats headed into 2014.

The dual goals, of both getting compromises and political points, will likely prevent Republicans from helping at all, even as the economy reaches its strongest point in Obama's presidency.

The economy, surely, will be the main focus of the president's speech, as he tackles a theme he used to win re-election in 2012 – income inequality and the growing gap between the nation's wealthiest and the most poor.

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"You can be sure that the president fully intends to use his executive authority to use the unique powers of the office to make progress on economic opportunity, to make progress in the areas that he believes are so important to further economic growth and further job creation," said White House spokesman Jay Carney Monday during his daily briefing.

 

Carney said the president will seek common ground with Congress in achieving his goals, but is prepared to move ahead alone where he can when met with resistance, particularly in the Republican-controlled House.

"In conducting that work, he will use every means available to him to move forward towards achievement of those goals, and that includes working with Congress and passing legislation and signing it where Congress will work with him," Carney said. "But he simply won't stop there, because, mindful of Congress's reluctance to be cooperative at times, the president is going to exercise his authority."

Though Obama's popularity is near an all-time low, the president does not face another election and is focused on what he can do to further Democratic causes during his final years in the White House. Those likely will include further environmental protections or climate change initiatives; education reforms, particularly around student loans; tax reform; gun control; and immigration reform.

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Obama will likely also have to address the state of the Affordable Care Act, his health care reform law that failed to meet even the lowest expectations for effectiveness when it was rolled out last fall. But the president will focus on the latest enrollment numbers, the improved health insurance made available and other success stories as he makes the sale on his signature domestic policy.

He will also spend time discussing his fulfillment of a 2008 election promise to bring troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, likely glossing over the current state of violence and terrorism in Iraq as a result of the vacuum. The president will also probably touch on other world issues, such as the continued strife in Syria and Egypt, peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians and preliminarily successful anti-nuclear talks with Iran.

Some of Obama's economic proposals are likely to be some of the most bipartisan in nature, but it's unlikely Republicans, who have so far resisted nearly every Obama proposal since his election, will scurry to sign up in support of even the most benign initiative ahead of the midterm elections in 2014. Well aware of that, Carney hinted Obama will make it clear he's ready to move forward on his own, using all the resources of the executive branch to initiate change.

"That includes legislative proposals and advances," he said, "as well as ways that we can move the country forward and expand opportunity and reward hard work through either executive action, signing executive orders, or through using the bully pulpit – or the modern bully pulpit, the phone – by bringing people together around an issue so that it gets the focus that a White House event or endorsement can give you."

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And while Republicans are likely to reject a "my way or the highway" approach by Obama, it will provide Democrats with a convenient opportunity to either embrace the president's particular proposal or reject it, without having to vote on it. That can help vulnerable Senate Democrats in particular, such as Alaska's Mark Begich, Arkansas' Mark Pryor and Louisiana's Mary Landrieu, as they strive to win re-election in states that Obama lost in his own re-election.