WASHINGTON -- It's an annual rite of passage.
In the lead-up to the State of the Union address in late January, the White House teases out policy themes the president will focus on during the year. The tease is typically done in background briefings, where administration officials only talk if they are anonymous and not quoted. They usually offer only vague details, not wanting to trample on the pomp, circumstance, and general newsworthiness of the State of the Union address itself.
This year, a briefing theme was that President Barack Obama has little appetite for a debt reduction deal and no plans to further tackle deficit reduction. The so-called grand bargain exchange of tax hikes for entitlement reforms was not on the policy priority list. When asked why, officials holding the briefing explained that Obama is certainly open to any fair deal, but his domestic priorities are elsewhere.
The focus is now income inequality, which the administration has approached more dogmatically since fall. Obama, his aides said, would work with Congress where needed, on items that include long-term unemployment insurance, a minimum wage hike, and worker training. Aides mentioned they'd champion investments in infrastructure, and said they weren't done advocating for revenue hikes to help cover the tab.
But there are actions Obama will take that won't require the legislative branch. The officials, naturally, wouldn't elaborate.
Alterations of policy like this have been made in the past, usually under the rubric of a "pivot to jobs." And it's worth cautioning that the optimism of a new year often cedes to the realities that a divided government doesn't beget impressive legislative output.
To that, the senior administration officials had a few rejoinders, some more convincing than others. The executive actions the president will take don't face congressional hurdles, they noted. A lot of the administration's work will be done in the fine print of governance, through regulations and the implementation of previously passed laws.
On a macro level, the officials insisted they feel comfortable with their current position. The botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act in October and November has largely passed. And Obama certainly recognizes that his remaining time in office is dwindling. The passage of a budget last month gave hope that the congressional process isn't entirely hopeless. And the expectation that an omnibus appropriations bill will be built off that budget framework was high.
So the White House is looking to make a preemptive case, prior to the State of the Union address, that the year should be focused on using a more favorable congressional environment to address jobs and income inequality.
A few things stand in the way. Obama will make a speech on reforms to the National Security Agency, though that won't be coming this week, the aides said. Affordable Care Act implementation will continue to be a heavy weight (the aides said they are spooked enough not to get complacent). Judges need to be nominated and confirmed, even with the refined filibuster rules allowing for smoother Senate passage. And, finally, Obama will be working with his team to find new policy proposals that could further break the political logjams.
Like everything else, those weren't detailed during the briefing. They'll be unveiled at the State of the Union address on Jan. 28.