The economic state of the union is unequal, President Obama will argue on Tuesday night, suggesting that the only possible response to the problem is unilateral action. It's a good preview for the year: the fight on Capitol Hill between now and November is more likely to be about Obama's decision to work around Congress than his actual policy proposals.
What Obama will say specifically during tomorrow night's speech is still in evolution; over the weekend, White House photographer Pete Souza published a number of photos of the president working with his speechwriters. But the broad themes seem pretty clear based on statements from the White House and reading some fairly obvious tea leaves. Last month, Obama announced a new focus on income inequality, which a blog post from the White House's Dan Pfeiffer makes clear will be prominent tomorrow. The "core idea" of the speech: "If you work hard and play by the rules, you should have the opportunity to succeed. Your ability to get ahead should be based on your hard work and ambition and who you want to be, not just the raw circumstance of who you are when you're born."
Following the speech, Obama will travel to four cities — Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Nashville, and Prince Georges County, Maryland — to continue to argue for the policies he'll present on Tuesday. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette speculates that the city was chosen because of Pennsylvania's high rate of the long-term unemployed. In December, unemployment benefits for about 1.3 million people expired, and Obama and Senate Democrats have pushed for them to be renewed.
But while on the road, Obama will also be trying to whip up public support for his political worldview. After all, as White House spokesman Jay Carney told the Associated Press, Obama "sees this as a year of action to work with Congress where he can and to bypass Congress where necessary." In that blog post, Pfeiffer echoes the "work around Congress theme": "President Obama has a pen and he has a phone, and he will use them to take executive action and enlist every American … in the project to restore opportunity for all."
Obama did this last year, too, telling the assembled Congress during his 2013 SOTU speech that he would take action on climate change if it didn't pass legislation to curb carbon emissions. It didn't; in June, he announced that he'd ask the EPA to develop a regulatory solution to power plant emissions. Republicans — particularly Republicans from coal-producing states, condemned the unilateral move. "Our Constitution reserves the power to enact, amend, or repeal statutes to Congress alone," a group of Republican legislators — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of coal-rich Kentucky — argued in a court filing in December. The authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, incidentally, stems from the Clean Air Act, and was upheld by the Supreme Court.
The fight this year will be much broader. Kentucky's junior senator, Rand Paul, said Obama's focus on doing what he can outside of Congress "sounds vaguely like a threat." It raises the question: what should a president do that faces nearly complete opposition from the legislative branch? Nothing? Both sides argue that they've been given a mandate from the American people, and it is the legislative branch that, to the anti-EPA Republicans' point, that is supposed to enact legislation. But the chief executive is given authority on implementation of those rules, authority that can be abused. Gov. Chris Christie's appointees had the authority to launch "traffic studies."
Obama's in a much stronger position this year to take unilateral action after Senate Democrats threw out the ability of the minority to filibuster executive nominees. Obama's working with a fully-stocked D.C. Circuit Court, new appointees to the National Labor Relations Board, and a number of other appointees throughout the federal government. It's hard to use executive actions and regulatory authority to make change if you don't have anyone running the agency that would enforce the regulation.
If Obama's post-SOTU tour doesn't make the case that there's no way he can work with Congress, the immediate aftermath of his speech might. Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rogers, House Republican Conference Chair, will give the party's official response to the speech. But Utah Sen. Mike Lee will also give a response, on behalf of the Tea Party. And Paul will give his own response, on behalf of … his 2016 prospects, apparently. That divisiveness has made it hard for the Republicans to reach consensus on what policy measures should be passed, much less reaching consensus with the Democrats.
The first year of the 113th Congress was remarkably unproductive, yielding fewer passed bills than at any point in decades. For Obama to actually affect income inequality, he's decided that it's unlikely to wish for those numbers to go up. But, even acting within the boundaries of his authority, he's likely handing anti-government Republicans a heavy club to use between now and November.