Obama to sound Nixonian theme in SOTU?

Barack Obama plans to launch a call to action in tomorrow’s State of the Union address as a way to scold a recalcitrant House for blocking his agenda. The White House will emphasize executive action in 2014 rather than work with Congress, making the venue for the SOTU a little odd indeed. We’ll get back to that in a moment, but the White House might want to rethink their approach, because as it turns out, it’s not exactly new — and they may not appreciate the comparison, National Journal’s George Condon explains:

But, as Obama has learned, “new” doesn’t always mean new. Presidents—sometimes without even realizing it—borrow phrases and ideas from their predecessors. Expect to hear this president use his speech this year to push Congress to make 2014 “a year of action.” It’s a phrase he previewed earlier this month. But there is nothing new here. It is borrowed. Credit Nixon for this one. In his State of the Union in 1972, he complained that Congress had ignored his legislative agenda over the past 12 months. That, he said, had been “a year of consideration.” But, he added, “Now, let us join in making 1972 a year of action on them, action by the Congress, for the nation, and for the people of America.”

Presidents are “always looking for a simple, easy-to-remember message on top of all their policy proposals,” said William Galston, Clinton’s chief domestic policy adviser. “Something that not only gives some rhetorical lift but gives the people listening to the speech the impression that it all ties together, that all these specific ideas are in pursuit of a common goal or a common vision.” Galston added, “Underlying that is the message of leadership—’Hey, I know what I am doing. I am here for a purpose. I’m a clear-eyed, goal-oriented, mission-oriented leader.’ And a good slogan can convey all of that.”

That has given us Clinton’s New Covenant, Nixon’s New Federalism, and Carter’s New Foundation, all terms unveiled in a State of the Union address. Carter’s was perhaps the most unfortunate in 1979. He used the term five times and the word “foundation” 13 times. But only three days later—after much mocking that a “new foundation” had something to do with women’s undergarments—Carter cast the campaign aside, telling reporters, “I doubt it will survive. We are not trying to establish this as a permanent slogan. It was the theme that was established … for one State of the Union speech.” Forget that the White House had, indeed, been selling it as a permanent slogan.

Remember Obama’s slogan from the 2011 State of the Union, “Win the Future“? No one at the White House apparently figured out that “WTF” has a whole different meaning to people in the social-media era, and eventually dropped it. However, Condon reminds us that “Win the Future” was actually a replacement for the recycled “New Foundation” in his first inaugural address. This White House is not long on research or originality, it seems.

Also at National Journal, Ron Fournier writes that the problem of the Obama presidency isn’t Congress, John Boehner, or anyone else but the President himself. He cites two recent profiles of the White House and its new focus on executive action, which Obama’s defenders derided last year when critics attempted to hold Obama accountable for a bad economy and other failures:

The assessment concluded that Obama and his communications team allowed his fifth year to be judged too much by his dealings with Congress, which were poor.

A conservative Republican faction killed his gun-control proposals— joined by some Democratic senators — and eventually shut down the government for 16 days. “We still didn’t know enough about the Republicans,” said one senior administration official, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the internal assessments.

Didn’t know enough? After five years in office? This official, like so many others in the West Wing, apparently is not sufficiently self-aware to realize that he confirmed an Obama critique – that the president is too removed and disinterested from the political process to affect it, that he doesn’t value congressional relations enough to give them anything more than lip service, and that, for his enormous intellectual gifts, Obama is handicapped by a lack of political curiosity. He chose not to know enough about the Republicans.

The story raises several other questions. First, why did it take this long for the White House to discover the power of executive orders and rule-making? (Republicans are warning of “tyrannical executive orders,” ignoring the fact that GOP presidents issue them, too.) For instance, Obama has refused to use the power of clemency in a broad way to correct injustice in crack-cocaine sentencing. He punted to Congress the most important questions about NSA overreach rather than taking executive action. And now we’re supposed to be impressed by his pen and phone?

He quotes John Dickerson at Slate, who is unimpressed by Obama’s attempt to wrap himself up in his limitations “like a shawl”:

The president’s comments reflect the triumph of experience over hope. He long ago tempered his claims about transforming partisan politics—he now seems a little embarrassed about the whole thing. But the tone of the piece also shows how realistic he has become about harnessing the power of his electoral success and the national mood he claimed it represented. That was a promise of the Obama presidency that didn’t rely on a willing Congress. He had a special relationship with voters and he was going to turn it into a force. He called on that bond in his second inaugural address: “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time—not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”

But when he talks about tackling income inequality he no longer speaks of national movements. It’s not because the public isn’t ready to be led. The country is still looking for a political champion to rally them, but unlike a previous version of Obama who would have promised that he could channel the passion outside Washington to change Washington, his aspirations are more modest now. He hopes to give “voice to an impression, I think a lot of Americans have, which is it’s harder to make it now if you are just the average citizen who’s willing to work hard and has good values, and wasn’t born with huge advantages or having enjoyed extraordinary luck—that the ground is less secure under your feet.” After six years the president recognizes that people are looking for “other flavors … somebody else out there who can give me that spark of inspiration or excitement.”

Here’s part of the problem: Inequality is getting worse, not better, under Obama. The workforce participation rate has hit a 36-year low despite nearly five years of technical recovery, and food stamps are going to an all-time high of American families by percentage. Numerous pivots to the economy — and this one — have done nothing to arrest that trend in Obamanomics. Plus, the disastrous impact of ObamaCare shows what this administration’s ideas on solving income inequality will do across the entire economy, not just the one-sixth of it which the health-care sector comprises.

Fournier’s piece touched off a fun Twitter debate with Greg Sargent of the Washington Post over the nature of “Green Lanternism.”

Barack Obama warned earlier that while Congress can hold up legislation, he still has a phone and a pen. Jill Lawrence explains at the Daily Beast that neither will really mean much except some small-scale efforts on the agenda Obama will roll out tomorrow:

President Obama says he’s going to focus for the rest of his tenure on what he calls “the defining challenge of our time”—a cluster of issues including income inequality, stalled upward mobility, long-term unemployment, and wage stagnation. It’s an admirable pledge and, 50 years after Lyndon Johnson urged Congress to declare war on poverty and unemployment, a timely one. But even if his attention doesn’t wander, the odds of Obama having significant impact are long. In contrast to other issues, like the environment and even gun control, presidents armed with nothing but executive powers can’t do much to affect the economy. They need Congress to act—and how often does that happen these days?

The cupboard isn’t entirely bare as Obama looks for ways to increase jobs and decrease inequality on his own. But no one should mistake a marginal nudge with a substantial achievement. Consider that in September 2011, in his American Jobs Act, Obama proposed spending $50 billion on job-generating infrastructure projects, and creating a National Infrastructure Bank capitalized with $10 billion. The plan went nowhere thanks to Senate Republicans who blocked it, and Obama eventually fell back on executive action on a much smaller scale—speeding up the federal review and permit process for major infrastructure projects. But he’s still hoping for real money and went on the road last summer to beg Congress to step up.

Actually, the House has stepped up — a number of times. It has passed numerous jobs-related bills that the Senate has refused to consider. Perhaps Obama could get on his phone and ask Harry Reid to allow debate and a vote on those packages, or perhaps facilitate negotiations to craft a compromise between his plan and those of House Republicans.