Obama seeks to regain initiative with speech to US lawmakers

US president determined to push ahead with legislative plans on income inequality and the environment

US president Barack Obama:   goals of introducing free public preschool and more climate controls, raising the minimum wage, and reforming the tax and entitlement system have   failed to win over Republicans. Photograph:   Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

US president Barack Obama: goals of introducing free public preschool and more climate controls, raising the minimum wage, and reforming the tax and entitlement system have failed to win over Republicans. Photograph: Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

Tue, Jan 28, 2014, 01:00

US president Barack Obama travels to the US Capitol tonight for the most high-profile speech of the year attempting to salvage his progressive political agenda and avoid being tagged a lame duck president.

With his approval rating running near record lows and a divided Congress jamming up the legislative machine, Mr Obama is expected to lay out his “pen and phone” strategy in his State of the Union address to assure the American people that he can get something done with or without Congress.

White House aides have flagged that Mr Obama will use the speech before members of Congress in the House of Representatives to warn lawmakers that he is willing to act without them and push ahead with his legislative plans, bypassing them by signing executive orders.

“We need to assure to the American people that we can get something done either through Congress or on our own because what they want are answers,” Mr Obama’s adviser Dan Pfeiffer told CNN. “He is going to look in every way he can with his pen and his phone to try to move the ball forward.”


Action on environment
Income inequality, a recurring theme for the president, and action on the environment through presidential orders are expected to feature in his speech tonight.

Plagued last year by the first government shutdown in 17 years and the botched rollout of his healthcare legislation, Mr Obama has stressed that 2014, his fifth year in the White House, “has to be a year of action”. This is certainly the case if not to save his legacy then because of the narrow window of time he has to find cross-party consensus on new laws before campaign fever sets in ahead of November’s mid-term elections and the 2016 presidential race eclipses long-term legislative planning.


Policy objectives
Many of the policy objectives and calls for congressional action in tonight’s speech will sound familiar given how last year’s shopping list of ideas remains largely unchecked since the Democratic president has been stymied at almost every legislative turn by a Republican-run House of Representatives.

Buoyed by a resounding re-election, the president set the bar high last year with the first State of the Union wish list of his second term but he ended up overpromising and underdelivering.

Despite an impassioned plea for a “simple vote” on legislation to curb gun violence in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school massacre in Connecticut, the president’s efforts to change gun laws faltered.

Equally, Mr Obama’s goals of introducing free public preschool and more climate controls, raising the minimum wage, and reforming the tax and entitlement system have also failed to win over Republicans.

The only area where there appears a slim chance of a policy achievement is on comprehensive immigration reform (an issue watched closely by the tens of thousands of Irish living illegally in the US) though only because it is the interests of Republicans to win back minority voters.