Just when a couple of small bridges had begun to span the partisan gulch that is paralyzing Congress, President Barack Obama vowed to go it alone if need be.
“I am eager to work with all of you,” he told Congress in his State of the Union address Tuesday night. But ...
“America does not stand still, and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The president announced some modest executive actions he can take without congressional approval, including raising the minimum wage for some federal contractors and establishing a retirement savings program for lower-income workers.
At the same time, Obama said he wasn’t giving up on Congress and renewed calls for many of his previous now-stalled legislative priorities, such as extending unemployment insurance and raising the minimum wage across the board.
“As president, I’m committed to making Washington work better and rebuilding the trust of the people who sent us here,” he said. “I believe most of you are, too.”
So his speech offered a curious mix of messages, “we’re all in this together” on one hand and “my way or the highway” on the other. Reactions among Democrats and Republicans in Congress predictably split along party lines.
Executive orders aren’t uncommon. According to the Washington Post, Obama signed 167 through 2013. The Post said that’s fewer than every president in the same time period dating to Harry Truman. President George H.W. Bush signed 166 in a single four-year term.
But the timing of the president’s pledge to bypass Congress was unfortunate.
After three years of increasing partisan rancor reached fever pitch with last fall’s government shutdown and Senate Democrats invoking the “nuclear option” on presidential appointees, a few positive steps recently had been taken in the direction of more collaboration.
Two weeks ago, Republicans and Democrats in Congress finally came together and passed a spending bill that neither side much likes, but which is an improvement over fiscal cliffs and persistent lack of budgets.
This week, Congress is voting on a compromise farm bill, which nobody loves but which is years overdue and will save between $16 billion and $23 billion over current funding.
And encouragingly, both Democrats and Republicans have been talking about steps they might take to address illegal immigration, a devilish problem to be sure, as well as the best ways to grow the nation’s economy.
Recent opinion polls have put Congress’ job approval in the 13 percent-to-14 percent range. The president fares somewhat better, but more Americans also are unhappy with his job performance than approve of it.
An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll this week found six of 10 Americans describing the state of the union as “divided” or “troubled.” Just 13 percent characterized it as “hopeful,” and only 3 percent said it is “strong.”
The Constitution divides power between the legislative and executive branches, and voters have divided control of the legislative branch. Public opinion largely rejects the fringe in either direction.
In Washington’s current hothouse climate, it may be impossible for either side to cooperate. But how refreshing it would have been had the president talked not about going it alone but about what used to be called bipartisanship.