Obama no longer vows to transform Washington or assures the public that his “Yes we can” mantra is enough to solve the nation's most vexing problems. To use a metaphor that would resonate with fellow golfers, Obama is abandoning the go-for-broke days of trying to reach par 5s in two shots and instead laying up for a short pitch to the green.
Critics and even many supporters say the president was driven to adopt a modest agenda to protect Obamacare after the disastrous rollout of the law's insurance exchanges. The fate of the health plan will determine his legacy, they say, so Obama will leave the rest of his once-ambitious agenda on the back burner.
A cautious Obama has shown he's perfectly content to avoid the hazards of engaging with Congress, staying in the middle of the fairway and settling for limited executive actions that present few pitfalls -- but also inspire little of the excitement that once defined his brand.
Obama may have little choice but to lower expectations for his sixth year in office, because any significant accomplishments would require the cooperation of the Republican-led House.
Throughout his time as the nation's top executive, Obama has repeatedly shown an inability, and even an unwillingness, to actively negotiate with Congress. Even Democrats note his continued absence from the legislative process, which stands in stark contrast to his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton.
“Are there things he might have done differently?” pondered Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., when asked about Obama’s dealings with Congress. “Maybe. But everyone is less hands-on than Bill Clinton.”
While some Democrats are willing to give Obama a pass for not developing closer ties with Congress, the president’s inattention has proved nearly fatal to his relationship with GOP lawmakers.
“There is no question that this president and his administration have missed a tremendous opportunity over the last several years by failing to come to the Hill and get engaged and work with the members on both sides of the aisle,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., told the Washington Examiner. “I have been disappointed. I know that the sense is that many members here have been disappointed. If the White House wants to sit down and roll up their sleeves and work, we can work together.”
Cantor warned that Obama will run into constitutional roadblocks if he tries to push policies without the cooperation of Congress.
“If he wants to get something done for the American people the way he says he does,” Cantor said, “he’s got to come work with us.”
Many expected Obama to use his State of the Union to bring the fight to Congress. Instead he outlined a series of executive actions -- raising the minimum wage for newly contracted federal workers, helping the long-term unemployed find work, issuing stricter environmental standards and expediting infrastructure projects -- that tinker around the margins rather than meet the lofty, progressive blueprint outlined in his second inaugural address.
“He can’t win,” one senior administration official complained to the Examiner. “If he goes one way, you say he’s living in fantasyland, creating unrealistic expectations. Now he’s being too modest? I thought Republicans were accusing him of destroying the Constitution.”
The frustration of the White House shows that the president is caught in a tight spot: Obama has put forward limited policies while still giving Republicans ammunition to portray him as overstepping his authority.
Obama's unilateral push to halt the deportations of young illegal immigrants, his delay of key provisions of the Affordable Care Act and his forthcoming regulations on power plant emissions have certainly stoked GOP charges of executive overreach.
But his priorities for 2014 indicate that he's more focused on managing than legislating. Presidential historians say that is a common tactic for commanders in chief with limited political capital during their last years in office.
“He doesn’t want his bad year to transfer to Democrats who are running in November, and he has to lay a path for them,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidential historian who focuses on White House communication.
“He’s got a plate of leftovers,” she added. “If he couldn’t get those things done in his first five years, it’s going to be a steep climb — he’s aware of that.”
Other political observers, though, questioned the soundness of the White House’s new strategy.
“The rhetoric and lack of specific proposals seem to suggest that he's just trying to preserve what he's already achieved, primarily Obamacare,” said Frank Donatelli, political director for President Reagan.
“But I don’t get what they see on the horizon that will cause the public to have a more positive attitude towards the president,” he added.
Obama’s early 2014 agenda, dismissed as small ball by critics, seems geared to helping him meet his own administration's benchmarks for success.
The White House, however, has been unable to quantify how many people would benefit from executive orders to raise the minimum wage for new federal contract workers, create new retirement accounts and other measures to fight income inequality.
The bungled Obamacare rollout led to plummeting perceptions of the president’s competence and trustworthiness, leaving Obama in the awkward spot of trying to tamp down expectations while still preserving faith in his ability to tackle the nation’s problems.
Still, even while Obama threatened to act unilaterally, his State of the Union address outlined a number of proposals that overlap with Republican ideas and could lead to compromise.
Republicans are preparing an immigration reform proposal — an issue at the top of Obama’s agenda.
Obama also called for stepped up production and utilization of natural gas, an idea Republicans have already put forward in legislation.
“That is absolutely the right path,” said Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb. “Rep. Sam Graves and I have dropped some bills that were right up with what the president was saying so I look forward to him working with us and we will get it passed.”
Obama’s State of the Union proposal to devise a new pension savings plan for retirees caught the attention of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is introducing a similar measure with Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., that would make it easier for small businesses to offer pension plans to employees.
“I’m glad to hear the president is interested in retirement issues,” Collins said, adding that she believes the two parties can at least work together “on that bit.”
Republicans have also introduced legislation to boost job training, another focal point of the president’s speech.
“Obama says he is going to create a commission now to look at worker training programs that create more employment opportunities,” Cantor told the Examiner. “That is exactly what the SKILLS Act does. We don’t need to talk about it anymore. We can just do it.”
Despite evidence of bipartisan support, many Democrats oppose the GOP legislation because the job-training proposal reduces the power of labor unions.
Rather than work out a compromise between both sides, Obama suggested in his speech that he’ll simply use his pen to sign executive orders, and that has left lawmakers frustrated.
“I am concerned about the overreach of executive power that the president seems to be holding over our heads,” Collins said.
Congressional Democrats see it much differently. Republicans, they believe, have purposefully worked to block Obama at every turn.
They regularly cite the words of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who said in 2010 that the GOP's most important task was to prevent an Obama second term.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said Obama has no choice but to go as far as he can to move his agenda without agreement from Republicans.
“I think that’s frankly a reflection of reality,” Durbin said.