Good Speech, Modest Agenda, Diminished Leader

Americans may have already tuned out Barack Obama.

President Barack Obama smiles as he arrives to deliver his State of the Union speech on Capitol Hill on January 28, 2014 in Washington, DC. (National Journal)

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Is that all there is?

In what may be his last, best chance to revive a presidency that has fallen far short of its promise, Barack Obama unveiled his 2014 agenda Tuesday night: small-bore executive orders, studies, summits, and legislation, long-seasoned and stalled. "America does not stand still," he said, "and neither will I."

He focused on the era's seminal issue, loss of social mobility and income equality in a post-industrial, global economy. "The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by — let alone get ahead," Obama said to a joint session of Congress attending his annual State of the Union address.

Another cold, hard fact: Obama may not have the skill, the will, or the time to do much about it.

It was a good speech about a modest agenda delivered by a diminished leader, a man who famously promised to reject the politics of "small things" and aim big — to change the culture of Washington, to restore the public's faith in government, and to tackle enduring national problems with bold solutions. The night he sealed the Democratic nomination in 2008, candidate Obama looked forward to a day when future generations might say "this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

Tuesday night was no such moment.

It was, instead, a moment in miniature: an executive order to raise the minimum wage for future federal contractors, and another to create "starter" retirement accounts; summits on long-term unemployment and working families; and scores of promises to "continue" existing administration programs.

"What I offer tonight," he said, "is a set of concrete, practical proposals." Oh, such a far cry from "an audacity to hope."

It all echoed President Clinton's 1996 reelection campaign strategy to package scores of micro initiatives, a cynical but successful attempt to make the sum look bigger than its parts.

Before the speech, White House officials made a big deal of the executive orders, suggesting that an emboldened Obama would no longer let House Republicans hold up his agenda. The truth is they still can. With rare exceptions, nothing important or durable occurs in Washington without bipartisan congressional action. Obama reiterated his plea for legislative action on immigration, tax reform, infrastructure, the national minimum wage, and expanding access to pre-school. He defended Obamacare.

The centerpiece of last year's speech, a push for gun-safety legislation, was reduced to one passing paragraph, with nothing accomplished. It was a speech without an enduring new policy or idea.

Obama seems to have surrendered to the limits of his most-powerful office. While giving lip service to unilateral action, congressional outreach, and mobilizing the public, Obama doesn't seem to have faith in any of these customary tools of presidential leadership. He obsesses over GOP recalcitrance and other "structural institutional realities," a phrase he trotted out for The New Yorker's David Remnick, a sympathetic biographer. Rather than fight for a spot on Mount Rushmore, or at least his own chapter in history books, Obama seems content to "just try to get our paragraph right."

He also told Remnick that people are looking for "other flavors ... somebody else out there who can give me that spark of inspiration or excitement." He's right, and you had to wonder during the State of the Union address whether Obama's time had passed ... whether even a great address could move the needle ... whether they've tuned him out.

Last year, Obama struggled through a series of controversies that raised questions about his competence and credibility, followed by the inexplicably poor launch of his signature health insurance program.

According to a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, Obama's approval rating is an anemic 43 percent. Just 40 percent of Americans say they are either "optimistic and confident" or "satisfied and hopeful" about Obama's remaining time in office, versus 59 percent who are either "uncertain and wondering" or "pessimistic and worried."

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that 63 percent of the public has no confidence in Obama to make the right decisions for the country's future. The country is evenly divided over whether he is honest, a big drop from pre-2013 levels, while 52 percent said he does not "understand the problems of people like you."

A majority of Americans say their president is a weak leader.

The public is in no mood to listen to anybody in Washington. According to the NBC-WSJ poll, 63 percent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction; 71 percent aren't satisfied with the economy; and Congress' approval rating is a mere 13 percent.

When respondents were asked for one or two words to describe the state of the nation, the top answers were "divided" (37 percent), "troubled" (23 percent), and "deteriorating" (21 percent).

As he's always done, Obama spoke eloquently on the topic. "For several years now," he said, "this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government." But he has been unable to quiet, let alone conquer, the rancor.

To be fair, the Republican Party is largely to blame. Its leadership is weak and the House caucus is increasingly, stridently conservative. A measure of the GOP's divisions played out after Obama's speech, when four separate Republican "responses" were featured.

More numbers: Of the 41 initiatives Obama put before Congress a year ago, only two were enacted — a once-routine bill to raise the debt limit and a measure addressing violence against women.

Can the president and the GOP House do better this year? Or is this all there is? This was the last State of the Union address before elections in November and 2016 largely overshadow Obama and his agenda.

Words are no longer enough. "Follow-up and building some kind of momentum off of specific acts will mean more in the long run," said Bill Clinton's former press secretary, Mike McCurry, before the address, which he thought would allow Obama to "remind people they were once hopeful and have reason to hope again."

Democratic operative Chris Lehane, another veteran of the Clinton White House, said, "It will require disciplined execution to succeed."

That's the problem: Obama has not executed; he has not found a way to overcome his era's obstacles and fulfill his potential for greatness. It may be too late to learn how.