Obama's Agenda: Incremental Progress, not Sweeping Initiatives

After a first term marked by major policy pushes, the president's State of the Union suggests a pragmatic, small-ball approach going forward.


Rather than go big and bold, President Obama settled Tuesday night for incremental and pragmatic.

For all his swagger and political capital, the president subtly acknowledged the limits of what he can accomplish -- even while promising in his State of the Union address to create "a rising, thriving middle class." His speech lacked the moon-shot vibe you'd expect from a president courting greatness.

President Obama lays out his second-term vision for America. See full coverage

The agenda he discussed Tuesday night was a mixture of old proposals and new ones fashioned on the cheap, bowing to the obstinacy of his GOP rivals and the brutal fiscal reality of the times.

"Let me repeat -- nothing I'm proposing tonight should increase our deficit by a single dime," Obama told a joint session of Congress. "It's not a bigger government we need, but a smarter government that sets priorities and invests in broad-based growth."

Obama may suspect that that his legacy is already in place or in motion, and that precious little can be added to it.

In his first term, he averted an economic depression, ended the war in Iraq, and extended health-care insurance to millions. His decisive reelection cemented a coalition of young, nonwhite, and well-educated voters that could fortify the Democratic Party for a generation.

That victory virtually assures that Congress will ease immigration laws. The post-election massacre in Newtown, Conn., gave him a chance to enact modest gun control legislation.

It all would make for a solid record, but Obama surely wants to be remembered as more than a merely good president. What else can he do?

Climate change is an existential threat to mankind, a hugely complicated issue that could foist a problem-solving leader into the pantheon of presidencies. And yet it remains a mere promise: Obama challenged Congress to take action and said if they don't, he will use his executive powers to limit pollutants.

"For the sake of our children and our future," Obama said, "we must do more to combat climate change."

Preventing the looming debt-and-deficit crisis would burnish Obama's legacy, but he faces a stubborn, antitax Republican Party. While Obama has the upper hand on the issue politically, he is in cahoots with the GOP in one respect: Neither side has been willing to admit that taming the deficit would require sacrifice by all Americans, including the middle class.

But, unlike GOP leaders, Obama is willing to upset his political allies. He signaled again that he was open to finding savings in Medicare.

Obama urged Republicans to postpone the looming deadline for draconian budget cuts, giving both sides room to negotiate a so-called grand bargain on deficit reduction. "Let's agree, right here and now, to keep the people's government open, pay our bill on time, and always uphold the full faith and credit of the United States of America," he said.

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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