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Aides say Obama willing to bypass Congress

State of Union to detail use of executive orders

Obama is expected to call for a higher minimum wage and more infrastructure spending.Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Aides to President Obama on Sunday offered a preview of the strategy of the president’s State of the Union address, emphasizing Obama’s willingness to bypass a gridlocked Congress to achieve his goals.

Daniel H. Pfeiffer, the president’s senior adviser, said the speech Tuesday would include proposals that he could pursue without Congress, wielding executive power as he did last summer with his three-pronged plan to address climate change.

“The president views the power of his presidency in two areas,” Pfeiffer said on the CNN’s “State of the Union.” “His pen, which is the executive orders, the presidential memorandums. Also the phone, where what he can do is he can pick up the phone, bring together American citizens and businesses to commit on key issues.”


Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” said, “The president sees this as a year of action, to work with Congress where he can and to bypass Congress where necessary to lift folks who want to come up into the middle class.”

Pfeiffer said on CNN that this approach was not intended to be “confrontational.” But Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, who plans to give his own unofficial response to Obama’s address, disagreed.

“It sounds vaguely like a threat,” Paul said during an appearance on CNN. “And I think it also has a certain amount of arrogance in the sense that one of the fundamental principles of our country are the checks and balances, that it wasn’t supposed to be easy to pass legislation and you had to debate and convince people.”

Republican lawmakers said Sunday that they would be willing to work with the White House on smaller points of agreement.

Paul suggested, for example, that Congress could move forward on portions of an immigration overhaul if it were not for Democrats’ demanding an all-or-nothing approach to granting citizenship.


Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, cautioned that his party’s willingness to compromise would extend only so far.

“We’re anxious to help him create jobs, but we’re not going to go over and endorse more spending, more debt, more taxes, and more regulation,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

The discussion of maneuvering around congressional gridlock comes less than two weeks before the Treasury Department expects to exhaust its authority to borrow money, potentially setting up another fiscal showdown on Capitol Hill.

“I think for the president to ask for a clean debt ceiling, when we have a debt the size of our economy, is irresponsible,” McConnell said. “So we ought to discuss adding something to his request to raise the debt ceiling that does something about the debt — or it produces at least something positive for our country.”

Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the Tea Party Republican who helped provoke the government shutdown in October when he insisted on linking funding for government operations with defunding the president’s health care law, also called it “irresponsible” to continue increasing the nation’s borrowing limit without reining in spending.

“Of course we should do something,” he said on the CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “We shouldn’t just write a blank check.”

Pfeiffer said on Fox: “Our position on this is the same as it was in October, and the same that it’s been for more than a year, which is the American people should not have to pay the Republican Congress ransom for doing their most basic function, which is paying the bills.”


White House officials have said Obama would use the State of the Union speech to announce a series of executive actions he can take without congressional approval.

They will include expanding economic opportunity for middle-class workers in areas such as retirement security and job training. The officials expressed hope that these actions would press Congress to take further steps.

Obama is also expected to call for a higher minimum wage, more infrastructure spending, and an expansion of prekindergarten education, issues on which Democrats and Republicans are considered unlikely to agree.

The president will again use the speech to push for an immigration overhaul, an issue on which aides believe the administration and Republicans could reach a compromise.

Even if Obama does not convince lawmakers with his State of the Union message, he has a chance to frame the national conversation, an effort he will continue with a two-day trip to Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Tennessee.

Although interest in the State of the Union has fallen — the television ratings for last year’s address were the second lowest in 20 years — it is still an opportunity to reach more than 30 million Americans unfiltered.

“For that one night, he’ll have the spotlight the way no other person in the country will have all year,” said Robert Schlesinger, author of “White House Ghosts,” a history of presidential speechwriters. “As limited as the powers of the bully pulpit are, especially in the communications age, that still ain’t nothing.”


In response to Obama’s focus on economic disparities, Republicans are contending that the president’s own policies on jobs, deficit spending, regulations, and health care have made the problem worse.