WASHINGTON – Just because President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday doesn’t mean he sees the lawmakers as his audience.
In fact, although members of Congress are “physically in the room,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Friday, the president will really be "speaking to every American."
With partisan gridlock showing no signs of easing, aides say Obama is putting the finishing touches on a second-term agenda that can advance with or without Congress.
Obama has been alluding to that approach for days now, reminding White House guests that he has other tools besides legislation at his disposal – a pen to take executive actions and a phone to reach out to influential Americans to press for action.
But Carney put a finer point on the message Friday, saying that while the president “will absolutely talk” with Congress about things they can do together, he’s not going to limit himself. The president, he said, will not tie “one hand behind his back and not use all the powers available to him, the unique powers of the presidency, to move the country forward.”
The hint of the tone the president will set in his address comes as little surprise on Capitol Hill. House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has been bristling at the president’s repeated “pen and phone” references, noting that Obama also has a “Constitution and an oath of office.”
On Friday, Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said the president’s message was pretty hard to miss these days. “At least he's no longer hiding what's been true all along. The president has little interest in working productively with Congress,” Buck said. “This has been the approach for years, and it's done little for him and even less for people who are still asking, ‘Where are the jobs?’ ”
The White House is looking at executive actions Obama can take, with the advice of senior advisor John Podesta, the former head of a progressive think tank and a longtime advocate of using regulation to advance policy goals.
And aides to the president now refer openly to the president’s plan to use his “convening power” to get private-sector leaders working on things he can’t accomplish with Congress.
So when he says he wants to “work together,” Carney said Friday, Obama “doesn’t just mean the 535 elected members of Congress.”
"The president shares in the American people's frustration with the obstructionism that we've seen, the inertia we've seen in Congress, the occasional or often frequent refusal to work together on commonsense, middle-of-the-road proposals that advance the interests of the middle class," Carney said.
There's cause for hope of progress, he said, "even as the president makes clear that he will take action that he can that doesn't require congressional, legislative approval or action."