Actors who do not get big roles console themselves that there are no small ones. There are no small tasks, President Obama tried to convince listeners in this year’s State of the Union address last night. On the threshold of his sixth year in office, the president did not even pretend to expect any accommodation from Republicans, who hold a majority in the House and can block his legislative proposals, and he directly announced that, if things do not change, he will act alone.
"Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do," said Obama in the initial phases of his speech — translation: I will attempt to promote my agenda by my own executive orders; I will bypass Congress. The president has plenty of good reason for such an approach. One has only to look back at the big goals he set for himself in last year’s State of the Union message. He promised new gun laws, large-scale immigration reform, a federal minimum wage increase and a package of measures to reduce the impact of climate change.
None of that was fulfilled — precisely because of effective opposition from congressional Republicans. Along with some of his own failures — like his embarrassing, vacillating approach to the Syrian crisis and, above all, the ill-fated October launch of health care reform — that has been markedly projected onto the image Americans have of their president. Since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s, only Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, has had a lower confidence rating than Obama has now from fellow citizens at the beginning of his sixth year in office.
So, the president has decided to take action, but the problem is that his autonomous executive orders cannot compensate for the reach that laws enacted by Congress would have. They suffice only for small tasks.
Obama declared that he will raise the minimum wage for federal employees, which, in practice, will affect hundreds of thousands. It will help them, but in no way does it fulfill the president’s original aim of improving the financial situation of America’s entire lower class, millions of Americans.
The situation with Obama’s other proposals is similar. The strongest may be his announced measures to tame emissions because the Environmental Protection Agency has strong regulatory authority in the matter. However, gun laws, for example, have completely slipped away from his agenda. He still has to rely on possible cooperation from Congress on immigration and foreign policy — specifically, the issue of Iran. On the contrary, he may have to veto a congressional attempt to tighten sanctions against Tehran.
President Obama did not devote as much of his address to health care reform as in previous years. That, too, is logical; the implementation of reform is under way, and Congress will not decide its fate, but the American people directly. Obama also appealed to them to sign up for the new system and, in so doing, to confirm the meaning and objectives of reform in the best way possible.
No matter how we view "Obamacare," we cannot deny one thing: If he carries this task through to the finish, he will leave the White House in three years as a president who changed America, perhaps a president who attained only one goal — but a big one, for that.
At the same time, as Tuesday’s State of the Union address suggested, it is probable that Obama will otherwise remain the president of small tasks, not only in 2014, but also after his term is over.