President Barack Obama offered an honest if disappointing picture of the final years of his term in his State of the Union address. The president said Washington's toxic political environment had all but forced him to go it alone on a range of policy fronts, from instituting a limited increase in the minimum wage to launching new initiatives on job creation, climate change and retirement planning. He painted a bolder vision for presidential leadership Tuesday but a narrower one for addressing the major issues that affect most Americans.
Obama's annual State of the Union address had many of the usual themes. He called out America's exceptional nature, praised single moms, teachers and military families and drew on the theme of citizenship to tout voting rights, gun control and civic activism. But even as Obama sketched larger goals, from extending jobless benefits to reforming immigration, he faulted Congress as obstructionist and vowed to bypass the legislative process and pursue his agenda if needed through executive action.
This route serves the president more than the American people. While Obama could flood the zone with mini-initiatives, most are small-bore and exploratory. The minimum wage hike would affect future federal contractors, not the workforce at large. The new starter retirement accounts would still be unaffordable to many Americans living paycheck to paycheck. The manufacturing initiatives still bring to only half the number that Obama originally proposed in 2012. All the major goals he announced Tuesday — which should be front and center with Congress as well — still need work, such as immigration reform, income inequality and the nation's deficit.
Still, Americans want their president to lead, and Obama's new approach could create better opportunities for millions of people while setting the table for congressional action down the road. It could force the Republicans to become a party of ideas, not merely the party of no. And it could reignite faith among Democrats that Obama's termed-out administration has not lost its compass or stomach.
Obama still supports the right priorities, and he should use the late-hour attention that some Republicans are paying to the income gap as an opportunity to find common ground in fighting poverty. His proposal to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit for workers without children is a good place to start. So is Obama's call for a federal review of job-training problems to ensure that today's employers are getting the workforce they need. These are baby steps in the larger scheme, but they might build confidence between the administration and congressional Republicans and form a basis for future accomplishments.