One of the odder features of the president’s State of the Union Address was a certain disconnect between his rhetoric and what he actually proposed to do via Congress. On the broad fiscal front, Obama was asking Congress not so much for a “grand bargain” but for an agreement not to gratuitously screw up the economy with “manufactured crises.” Months of build-up on the need for election reform produced a call for a “bipartisan commission” to work on recommendations for reform (more about that later today). And most strikingly, in the ringing coda of the speech, he marshaled all the emotional ammunition associated with recent massacres of children and the grievous wounding of a Member of Congress to demand “a vote” on new gun regulations.
Tweeting last night, I described this pattern using the old debater’s term of a “plan-meets-need” problem: a dramatic and persuasive challenge for action followed by something underwhelming. During Obama’s first term, many progressives noticed this same tendency and attributed it to presidential timidity, and/or to an irrational desire for a bipartisanship that Republicans had categorically rejected as a matter of standard operating principle. But that’s not an accurate description of the posture Obama took last night: on one subject where he downplayed the possibility of legislation, climate change, Obama’s warning that he would go it alone if necessary is likely, if executed, to create the most intense explosion of conservative fury since the enactment of Obamacare.
As Jamelle Bouie acutely noted today at TAP, Obama is simply reflecting the objective configuration of power within Congress:
When, at the emotional high point of the speech, Obama declared that “Gabby Giffords deserves a vote. The families of Newtown deserve a vote. The families of Aurora deserve a vote,” it wasn’t just a rhetorical flourish; he was alluding directly to the impasse and gridlock that defines Congress. When he promised to direct the Cabinet to “come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution and prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change,” he was issuing a threat to Republicans: If you continue to needlessly block legislation, I will go around Congress and find other ways to implement my agenda. The most representative line of the entire speech, in fact, was this (in reference to a mortgage-reform proposal): “Take a vote, and send me that bill.”
The unfortunate fact is that—with the exceptions of immigration reform and gun control—Congress won’t be taking a vote. Republicans have a direct stake in passing immigration reform—they need to rebuild their standing with Latino voters—and public support for new gun laws is large enough to compel a compromise. For everything else, however, there’s little incentive for Republicans to cooperate.
In a very real sense, the fate of this congressional session (and probably all congressional sessions prior to 2016, given the unlikelihood of a Democratic takeover of the House or the achievement of a supermajority in the Senate in 2014) largely comes down to how much havoc Republicans choose to create. General gridlock may be a best-case scenario. So Obama is working with the facts on the ground, along with the strong probability that his soaring rhetoric on this or that progressive priority is bound to yield some significant disappointment.