WASHINGTON — His ambitions in check and his eye on the calendar, President Obama intends to use his State of the Union address to put a difficult year behind him and reassert command before the capital is consumed with election-year politics.
After five years in office, Obama has, by his own account, come to feel acutely the constraints on his power and the shrinking horizons before him — all of which makes his nationally televised speech to Congress on Tuesday a critical opportunity to drive an agenda that may yet shape his legacy.
But perhaps more so than in any previous congressional address, Obama confronts the reality that, except for a possible overhaul of immigration, he has little chance of major legislative victories in the coming year. As a result, aides said, he will present a blueprint for “a year of action” on issues like income inequality and the environment that bypasses Congress and exercises his authority as president to the greatest extent possible.
“This presidency is not going to be defined from here forward by big legislative initiatives,” said Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton whom this White House consulted. “Given that, he’s got to convey a sense of focus and forward momentum. He’s got a lot of time left in this presidency, and I think people will want to get the sense that he knows how to operate in this environment and that there is a strategy.”
After failing to push through gun control legislation and other priorities he raised in last year’s State of the Union address, Obama must take a different approach this year.
“There’s a challenge to the breadth that he can adopt,” said Neera Tanden, president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “Pushing for a series of new initiatives when last year’s initiatives still need to get done is a challenge. At the same time, he probably shouldn’t be limited to what the House of Representatives could pass, because that would be an incredibly limited vision.”
In an email to supporters Saturday, the president’s senior adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, characterized Obama’s coming message as “opportunity, action and optimism” and promised “a set of real, concrete, practical proposals” to strengthen the economy and expand opportunity.
Obama will still use the speech to push for an immigration overhaul, where Republicans have signaled that they may compromise, as well as for a higher minimum wage, more infrastructure spending, and an expansion of prekindergarten education, where the two sides are less likely to agree.
But Pfeiffer acknowledged the limits.
“The president will seek out as many opportunities as possible to work with Congress in a bipartisan way,” he wrote. “But when American jobs and livelihoods depend on getting something done, he will not wait for Congress.”
To counter Obama’s increased focus on economic disparities, Republicans are trying to turn the issue around on him, arguing that his own policies on jobs, deficit spending, regulations, and health care have exacerbated income inequality.
“The president has a lot of explaining to do,” Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri said Saturday in a Republican radio and Internet address. “If all he has to offer is more of the same, or if he refuses to acknowledge that his own policies have failed to work, the president is simply doing what many failed leaders have done before him: trying to set one group of Americans against another group of Americans.”
The address comes as Obama’s sense of possibility has contracted. A year after an intoxicating re-election victory, when he had a 57 percent approval rating, his support has fallen to 42 percent. Within months, lawmakers will be absorbed by their own campaigns in the midterm elections, and after that, Washington will begin to turn its focus to the contest to succeed Obama.
These days, rather than talking grandly about saving the planet, Obama envisions a more modest place in the tide of history.
“At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story,” he told David Remnick of The New Yorker recently. “We just try to get our paragraph right.”
Obama suggested that although he might not accomplish his goals during his tenure, he hoped to plant seeds.
“The things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable,” he said. “But you can move things forward. And sometimes the things that start small may turn out to be fairly significant.”
The seemingly diminished expectations expressed in those comments surprised many in Washington, where presidents rarely acknowledge limits.
Concerned about the impression Obama had left, aides warned against overanalyzing his words and said he was reinvigorated after the setbacks of 2013.
“He’s very focused and very excited about all the ways we can move the ball forward if Congress isn’t willing to go along, accepting of the reality that no Congress of the other party tends to green-light the agenda of the president of the opposite party,” Pfeiffer said in an interview. “He’s energized by the creative thinking going into the ways to move forward.”
Obama is hardly the first president to recognize the disparity between the perception and reality of his power. In his last year in office, George W. Bush was asked by an aide what had surprised him about being president. “How little authority I have,” he answered.