In tonight's State of the Union address, Barack Obama will build on themes he has developed throughout his presidency: income inequality, class mobility and economic opportunity. But while State of the Union speeches have long been a platform for presidents to outline their agenda for the coming year, Obama has to do something more with his speech. He has to convince Americans he has a plan to actually enact the policies he announces.
This is a tall order. For at least three years now, Obama has floated policy after policy, only to see them tabled or killed in Congress. There was the American Jobs Act, first proposed in 2011 and still languishing somewhere in the depths of the Capitol. Then there was the immigration bill, which made it through the Senate but has yet to appear on the House calendar. And the less said about the gun bill the president proposed in his last State of the Union, the better.
The administration knows this is a problem, which is why Obama has named 2014 the "Year of Action." No New Deal or Fair Deal or Square Deal, no War on Poverty or War on Terror or War on Drugs. Just action. Rather than a rallying cry, the slogan is a dismal reminder of how unworkable the federal government has become.
The plan moving forward is to hodge-podge a legacy out of executive actions and administrative work-arounds. But a president can't do big, history-making things that way. Look at the midcentury civil rights struggle. Without the legislative branch, presidents could only offer piecemeal progress: desegregating the federal government and the military, establishing a committee on equal opportunity. These were important and laudable actions. But they could not secure equal rights nationwide. That took the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. And those bills had to pass through Congress.
As they should. Major programs and initiatives should require congressional approval, not just because the democratic process demands it but because only then can they gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public. If Americans are frustrated with Republican obstruction in Congress, the answer is not to distort the powers of the executive branch but to fix the legislature.
So in his speech tonight, Obama should not only make the case for his economic-mobility agenda and his Year of Action. He should also call on Americans to begin working for structural changes: nonpartisan redistricting boards in their states, continued filibuster reform and a new Voting Rights Act to ensure all eligible Americans have equal access to the polls. These changes won't save Obama's agenda – he may have achieved lame-duck status already – but they can advance a legacy of reform that will make government more responsive and more reflective of the will of the people.