WASHINGTON –- The polls say that President Barack Obama is at a low point, but you couldn’t tell it from the tour de force of his State of the Union speech.
He was standing at the podium, but seemed to have a spring in his step. His smile was winning; his enthusiasm for America’s future infectious.
Masking the modesty of his proposals in the energy and confidence of his presence, the president launched the pivotal year of his second term with a shrewdly relentless focus on the use of his own power to change policy and convene, shame and inspire other sectors of society.
With the exception of a few minutes on foreign policy –- the core of which was to declare an end of the era of “permanent war” –- Obama zeroed in on proposals to extend the economic recovery to all Americans, not just to Wall Street investors and CEOs.
Some were merely aspirational: “convening” meetings, “hosting” summits. Others were small tweaks in federal policy, sold on the basis that they would inspire or implore the rest of America –- Republicans in Congress or leaders in the private sector –- to go along.
Facing congressional Republicans poised to say “no” on almost every legislative front –- with the possible exception of immigration reform –- the president made a virtue of necessity by promising to use his own executive powers to raise wages, train workers and entice the private and nonprofit sectors to do their part to create jobs, use new technology and lure investors to the U.S.
“America does not stand still and neither will I,” he declared, and with his broad smile and upbeat delivery he sounded convincing.
Obama eschewed sweeping legislative or ideological proposals on big-ticket items such as tax reform, entitlements, trade or social justice.
For the most part, he avoided any invitations to confrontation with his Republican congressional adversaries, other than to almost teasingly warn them away from trying to dismantle Obamacare.
Even where he did confront the GOP, he did so on issues that lack ideological depth.
He insisted that he wanted Congress to raise the minimum wage and extend long-term unemployment benefits. But both ideas have widespread public support and are essentially pragmatic fixes long considered to be part of the American mainstream.
Obama swung for the fences in his first term, and with success: He got reelected. But he whiffed disastrously last year, his administration reeling from spying controversies, congressional confrontations and a botched rollout of Obamacare.
The result is a job-approval rating in the low-40s, the kind that can cripple a presidency by making the chief executive a political pariah.
So, as Obama laid out his 2014 plans in his State of the Union, he committed to what the major leagues call “small ball”: incremental executive branch maneuvers to aid the economy, with the aim of creating jobs and restoring the president’s standing.
In his State of the Union, he was looking to scratch out runs with singles, bunts and walks.
It’s a game plan borne of necessity, a shrewd assessment of the enemies, and the president’s own personal and political character. He is not a man who relishes confrontation.
Facing implacable opposition from Republicans on the Hill, Obama is choosing to go around them where he can. Knowing how unpopular he is among the GOP base, he will shy away from table-pounding pronouncements that would only inflame the other side.
The White House strategy for 2014 is simple enough: ignore Congress (for the most part); be busy, purposeful, detail-oriented and reasonable; and hope that a rising tide of an improving economy will lift all boats -– including the president’s own.
In his State of the Union address, Barack Obama promised to use 32 executive actions and the example-setting and convening powers of his office to drive in economic runs on behalf of working people.
The goal is a politically indispensable one: to slowly but surely pull the president’s job-approval rating out of the dismal -- and debilitating -– low-40 percent muck in which it has been mired since the fall.
The approval rating number is not just a media plaything, though it is that. It matters greatly to members of Congress -– Republicans and Democrats alike -– and to the Democrats’ shaky chances of holding onto their slim majority in the U.S. Senate.
“We had a terrible fall,” a senior administration official told me before the speech. “We had the NSA and the budget confrontations and the botched rollout of the health care website,” he said.
“What we need to do now is put one foot in front of the other and move forward, and let a stronger economy get us back on track.”
The rest of the president’s strategic reasoning has to do with his assessment of his opposition. He thinks that if he plays things cautiously now –- if he avoids giving GOP adversaries a big target -– they will self-destruct.
“You can always count on them to say something stupid,” he has told his aides.
So that was the strategy in the State of the Union: Speak grandly of relatively uncontroversial things, and hope that the GOP overplays its hand.
Small ball, but runs scored.
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01/29/2014 1:22 AM EST
Sen. Menendez On Obama Sinking His Iran Sanctions Bill: 'I'm Not Frustrated'
President Barack Obama made clear Tuesday night that an Iran sanctions bill being pushed by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) isn't going anywhere, threatening a veto if it ever made it to his desk.
HuffPost caught up with Menendez after the president's address and asked for his thoughts on Obama shutting down his legislation. He didn't have much to say.
"I’m not frustrated," said the New Jersey Democrat as he ducked into an elevator, pushing the buttons and looking ready to be done with the conversation. "The president has every right to do what he wants."
Menendez's bill has bipartisan support, but it faces stiff resistance from the White House, which argues it may thwart a delicate deal now in place between Iran and a number of world powers, including the United States. Under that six-month deal, Iran will stop developing its nuclear capability in exchange for an ease in existing sanctions.
Speaking to a group of reporters as he made his way to the elevator, Menendez said his "real concern" is that, without steadily imposing sanctions on Iran, the U.S. will ultimately let them all fall away.
"We'll have to accept a nuclear weapons state or we're going to end up with a military option," he said. "We won't have sanctions in place anymore."
Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said he noticed something different about the way the president talked about Iran during Tuesday's address.
"He talked about preventing them from building a nuclear weapon. It used to be we're going to prevent them from having the capability to build a nuclear weapon. That seems to be gone," Lankford said. "It was all about just not getting to the last stage rather than capability. That's a pretty big shift."
-- Jennifer Bendery and Michael McAuliff
01/29/2014 1:03 AM EST
Michele Bachmann: Equal Pay Is So Old
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) didn't think much of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address (aside form his support for wounded warriors), but she was especially dismissive of his appeal for women to get equal pay. That's just so over, Bachmann argued.
"Frankly, a lot of what we heard were 40-year-old prescriptions and 40-year-old bromides. I mean really, equal pay for equal work?" Bachmann said. "I mean, this was something in the 1970s people were talking about. So I think we've addressed that."
Most economists estimate that women earn about 77 percent of what their male counterparts earn.
-- Michael McAuliff
01/29/2014 12:57 AM EST
Sen. Lindsey Graham: 'World Is Literally About To Blow Up'
Shortly after President Barack Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters point-blank: "The world is literally about to blow up and our president did not really paint a fair picture of the threats we face."
Graham, a member of the Senate Arms Services Committee, said he wanted Obama to tell the American public during his annual address how he intends to resolve the conflict in Syria and questioned whether the administration's negotiations with Iranians over their nuclear program would be productive.
"I cannot stress to you enough how disappointed I was to hear the president's explanation of the state of affairs when it comes to the Mid-East and our national security threats," Graham said. "I thought he underplayed that and oversold. Explain what happens in the Middle East if the Syrian conflict goes on and (Bashar al) Assad continues to win."
He went on: "I would say that trying to free people from the bonds of al Qaeda is a good thing. That going into Afghanistan is a good thing. Taking Saddam Hussein out is a good thing. Trying to get people get on their feet and elect their government is a good thing."
Graham and a bipartisan group of senators have called for more sanctions on Iran. Obama has promised to veto any legislation that would increase such sanctions.
-- Eugene Mulero
01/29/2014 12:35 AM EST
State Of The Union Poll Gives Obama Positive Marks
HuffPost's Ariel Edwards-Levy and Mark Blumenthal report:
CNN's instant polling among Americans who watched Tuesday's State of the Union found an overwhelming majority reacting positively to President Barack Obama's address, as it has four times previously during his presidency.
The network's poll found that 76 percent of Americans viewed the speech somewhat or very positively, in line with reactions to his previous speeches, although the percentage with "very positive" views declined. Last year, 77 percent of watchers reported a positive view of the speech to CNN, and slightly higher numbers approved of Obama's speeches in three previous years. (The network didn't conduct a post-State of the Union poll in 2012.)
01/29/2014 12:15 AM EST
GOP Response To State Of The Union Leaves Out These Words: Repeal Obamacare
Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.) delivered harsh criticisms of President Barack Obama's health care reform law during the official GOP response to his State of the Union address Tuesday, but stopped short of explicitly demanding its repeal.
McMorris-Rodgers highlighted the negative effects of the Affordable Care Act on consumers whose premiums rose, whose previous health insurance policies were canceled because they didn't meet the law's benefit standards and whose physicians aren't covered by the new plans available on Obamacare's health insurance exchanges. But while McMorris-Rodgers declared Obama's reforms a failure, she didn't vow that congressional Republicans would continue their push to repeal the law, for which the GOP-led House has vote dozens of times.
"No, we shouldn't go back to the way things were, but this law is not working. Republicans believe health care choices should be yours, not the government's," McMorris-Rodgers said. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) made no mention of Obamacare in the written statement he issued following the speaches by Obama and McMorris-Rodgers.
01/28/2014 11:17 PM EST
Environmental advocates had mixed reviews for the climate and energy portions of President Barack Obama's speech –- praising his climate comments but criticizing his energy strategy.
A number of environmental groups wrote to the president earlier this month asking him to drop his "all-of-the-above" rhetoric on energy. That policy, they wrote, is "fundamentally at odds with your goal of cutting carbon pollution." But Obama's speech doubled down on that language, claiming that the strategy "is working."
"If we are truly serious about fighting the climate crisis, we must look beyond an ‘all of the above’ energy policy and replace dirty fuels with clean energy," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement following the speech. "We can’t effectively act on climate and expand drilling and fracking for oil and gas at the same time."
Erich Pica, the president of Friends of the Earth, noted that the speech "was filled with unhelpful contradictions" in an email to The Huffington Post. "You cannot address carbon pollution through an all of the above energy policy. You cannot promote regulatory streamlining and trade pacts that will undermine governments regulations while trying to implement carbon pollution regulations."
Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, praised the climate portion of the speech but also brought up the environmental elephant in the room that Obama didn't address tonight: the Keystone XL pipeline. His statement called on Obama to reject the proposed pipeline from Canada to Texas.
-- Kate Sheppard
01/28/2014 11:16 PM EST
Republicans Respond To Obama With A Soft-Focus Human Interest Speech
HuffPost's Jon Ward reports:
The response to the president's State of the Union address from Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.), the GOP's fourth-ranking member in the House, was largely an attempt to present a humanizing side of the GOP, "a more hopeful Republican vision."
The 44-year old mother of three, who gave birth to her third child in November, talked at length about her own biography: She worked at a McDonald's drive-through in college, she got up before dawn to pick apples on her family's orchard, she was in the 4H Club, she's married to a retired Navy commander. The YouTube livestream of her speech featured a picture of McMorris-Rodgers' family when she mentioned her husband and children.
Beyond that, her speech was largely a string of generalized bromides about how Republicans want to "empower people, not politicians."
But for a party that has lost support among women voters in the last few elections -- and is viewed by a good number of voters as the party of old white men -- such a soft-focus human interest speech was just what the GOP wanted.
01/28/2014 11:12 PM EST
Obama Barely Mentions Government Shutdown, In Contrast To Clinton In 1996
In 1996, President Bill Clinton went before the nation and shamed congressional Republicans for shutting down the government. It was his first State of the Union address after two shutdowns that closed the federal government for 28 days, and he made sure GOP lawmakers would regret what they did.
But on Tuesday, in his first State of the Union speech since the 16-day shutdown in October, President Barack Obama took a very different approach. He made only a passing reference to the government shutdown and never pointed the finger directly at anyone.
"For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government," said Obama near the beginning of his address. "It's an important debate -- one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy -- when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States -- then we are not doing right by the American people."
01/28/2014 11:07 PM EST
Exactly Zero Words On Pot, Drug Policy Or Criminal Justice Reform
President Barack Obama didn't mention criminal justice, drug policy or marijuana in his 2014 State of the Union address at all.
Obama recently told the New Yorker he was troubled that "Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do." Attorney General Eric Holder has identified fixing the broken justice system that disproportionately affects millions of young black men as one of his top priorities. And the administration recently seems to be taking a more lenient stance on drug policy, allowing Colorado and Washington to proceed with their experiments in marijuana legalization.
None of that, however, was in the speech.
Every interest group feels left out when their favorite issue gets excluded from the State of the Union, and marijuana reform advocates are no exception. Tom Angell, co-founder of Marijuana Majority, said he thought it was "shameful" the president couldn't spare a few words.
"There are many ways the president can act to lead us out of this mess without Congress, including commuting the sentences of the thousands of nonviolent drug offenders that are locked up for no good reason," he said in an email. "He should also use the bully pulpit to build the case for repealing mandatory minimum sentences and reforming the failed drug prohibition policies that put too many of our fellow Americans behind bars for too long."
-- Matt Sledge
01/28/2014 11:01 PM EST
Drone Strikes Under 'Prudent Limits' Still Cause Civilian Casualties
President Barack Obama mentioned in his remarks the "prudent limits" he has imposed on U.S. drone strikes, referring to new procedures for the so-called "targeted killing" program laid out in a May 2013 speech.
In Pakistan, at least, those procedures seem to be having some effect: the U.K.'s Bureau of Investigative Journalism recently found that there were no reported civilian casualties from drones in that country in 2013.
Overall, however, drone strike deaths -- including those of suspected militants -- increased in both Pakistan and Yemen in the first six months after the May speech. And 2013 ended on a grisly note for the program, when the U.S. killed up to 12 civilians in a strike on a Yemeni wedding convoy.
"We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence," Obama said Tuesday.
So far, Pakistanis and Yemenis do not seem to be satisfied by the changes to the drone program. Pakistani's interior minister this week blamed a U.S. drone strike for derailing peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, and Yemen's parliament approved a resolution after the wedding convoy attack calling for an end to all drone strikes in the country.
-- Matt Sledge
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