Coming off arguably his worst year in office, President Obama is primed to somehow jumpstart a floundering administration and salvage his domestic and foreign policy agenda before the end of his second term.
As he speaks to the nation Tuesday night in his fifth nationally-televised State of the Union address, just 46 percent of Americans approve of his performance, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, only slightly better than a low of 42 percent in November.
A year that began with great promise but ended with legislative failure, a 16-day government shutdown, a disastrous rollout of Obamacare and a myriad of foreign policy headaches and missteps all contributed to the image of an administration that had lost its bearings.
As the White House revamps its political operation and prepares for a critical mid-term election year, some of his advisers are urging him to emphasize an executive style of governing aimed at sidestepping a recalcitrant Congress whenever possible and achieving many of his goals through executive action. But to succeed, the president will have to be truly bold and take risks – starting with tonight’s speech - if he hopes to reverse his political fortunes in the time remaining in his second term. The Fiscal Times asked five experts on domestic and foreign policy matters to suggest ways that Obama could get himself out of his political rut. Here is what they said:
William A. Galston, Senior Fellow in Governance at the Brookings Institution
What we’ve heard from Obama administration officials in the run-up to the State of the Union suggests that the president will focus on extending unemployment insurance and raising the minimum wage, appealing to his party’s base. In addition, we are told, he will lay out steps that he can take on his own authority, with or without congressional consent. This approach reflects a political judgment that Republicans are unlikely to cooperate with the White House on a meaningful policy agenda.
This assumption may be too pessimistic, however, and might shut the door on areas of potential progress across party lines. For example, House Speaker John Boehner and Judiciary Committee chair Bob Goodlatte have sent subtle signals that a compromise on immigration is in the works. Starting with the State of the Union, the administration should do whatever it can to strengthen the House leadership’s hand vis-à-vis diehard conservative opponents of comprehensive reform.
Another example: Ron Wyden, the new chair of the Senate Finance Committee, could inject new energy into the bipartisan push for corporate tax reform. Why not initiate high-level talks with Wyden and his House counterpart, Ways and Means chair Dave Camp, both of whom are committed to serious action?
A third example: the president has called repeatedly for increases in infrastructure investment, without notable result. Why doesn’t he endorse a bill offered last May by Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) which would finance $750 billion in new infrastructure investment using no appropriated funds? Just last week, a bipartisan team introduced a companion bill in the Senate. Obama could energize a long-stalled debate.
Bill Whalen, Hoover Institution Research Fellow
Realistically, there’s little for President Obama to aim for in the near term given that it’s an election year that historically works to the incumbent’s disadvantage. In W.C Fields terms, why would Republicans give a sucker an even break?
The more salient question is whether Obama will finish his second term with a semblance of a flourish. Here are two suggestions for the president: First, reconnect with those Americans who have the greatest emotional stake in his presidency. Obama wants to be remembered as the president who ended two wars. He should aim for a third: the shooting war that pits African-Americans against African-Americans in the nation’s largest inner cities.
A good husband and devoted parent, Obama should embrace the bully pulpit of fatherhood and male responsibility. As with the welfare debate of 20 years, he should seek out Republicans — yes, there are “ bleeding heart conservatives” receptive to this topic — on new ways to foster economic growth and safer communities. It may not harvest immediate results, but it’s a reminder of how Obama, given his ethnicity and historic standing, is equipped to start a dialogue that other leaders simply can’t.
Second, cut a deal with Congress on tax reform. If Obama doesn’t, odds are President Hillary Clinton will in her first term. A bigger dent on his legacy: a Republican president and GOP-controlled Congress pulling it off — and relegating Democrats to the sidelines. Tax reform isn’t a liberal pulse racing as, say, universal health care or income disparity, but a bill signing is always a good wall-hanging for the presidential library. And it sure beats the portrait of a president stuck in his ways – and stuck in a political rut.
Jim Kessler, Senior Vice President for Policy and Co-founder of Third Way
When President Obama takes the podium tonight, the defining problem for millions of Americans tuning in is that, increasingly, a middle class job no longer supports a middle class life.
It’s well known that the wages of typical American workers have been in second gear for the last several decades, barely keeping pace with inflation. What is less discussed is that wages haven’t come close to keeping up with the costs of the four big tickets into the middle class: college for kids, health care for the family, a home in a neighborhood with good schools, and a comfortable retirement.
Thanks to relentless increases in tuition over the past 32 years, staggering student loan debt, and an abysmal 57 percent graduation rate at four-year public colleges, only one-third of today’s 30-year-olds possess a college degree. Meanwhile, the only Americans who have seen real wage gains since 1980 are those with a BA or better.
In other words, college is an absolute necessity for entry into the middle class but is priced like a luxury.
The President has put an appropriate spotlight on income inequality. But income inequality doesn’t get to the immediate concerns of people who work every day but whose wages cannot keep up with the four tickets into the middle class. An agenda that seeks to increase those wages and decrease the price of entry into the middle class would be fresh, bold, and would force Republicans to take notice.
Gordon Adams, Defense Budget Expert and Professor at American University
I am looking for, but not expecting, bold leadership. This is the last bite at the apple the president will get; by early fall, we will be in full election campaign mode with the chance of making a difference eroding fast.
Having served into a second term, the erosion of political capital happens fast, innovation dies, and the Congress sits the president out. What I would hope for is:
1) A strong defense of negotiations with Iran on their nuclear program – in the face of domestic and Israeli opposition to those talks. It’s the best chance we will have of preventing war and containing the program at the same time.
2) Innovation in dealing with the problems of governance around the globe. How does he propose to engage the U.S. with others in strengthening governance, not just empowering military forces in other countries?
3) Defining our relationship with China as an opportunity, rather than a threat. The globe is rebalancing; how does the U.S. intend to cope with that change and what doors will we open with China, rather than a policy of military containment?
4) Climate change – permanently halt the Keystone XL pipeline and expand greatly the alternative energy investment of the United States, as well as a broad global initiative to strengthen international standards on discharges into the environment. This is a life-changing issue for the entire planet and a controversial one at home. As with health care, he should not shy away from it.
Dan Twining, Senior Fellow for Asia, the German Marshall Fund
Here’s what President Obama should say: "To all those in my country and the world who think this country's best days are behind us, I have news for you: America is back.
We will achieve energy self-sufficiency within a matter of years. Our economy is once again the primary engine of global growth as China and others stutter. We are close to completing trade agreements with the major developed economies in the world's richest regions - Europe and Asia - that will rank as the biggest trade deals by value ever.
Our military remains second-to-none and sees no global peer competitor in sight. Regional powers like Russia and China may challenge us, but the internal contradictions of their authoritarian systems will pose far greater constraints on their power than we will. Close allies like Japan and Britain are growing stronger and will continue to help us sustain a liberal international order.
In short, all the raw material exists for us to retain primacy in the world for many decades to come. After some years of drift under my watch, I now recommit my administration to sustaining American primacy - because we have learned that it is better for the world than any other alternative."
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