WASHINGTON — A year ago, when President Obama delivered his State of the Union speech before Congress and imagined providing preschool for all 4-year-olds, he followed his expansive vision with a bit of candor. “That’s something we should be able to do,” he said.
The president’s tone — more aspirational than expectant — was a nod to the reality of this annual Washington ritual. Little of what the president proposes in his most high-profile speech of the year is likely to get done, at least not any time soon.
As Obama polishes a fresh list of ideas to tick off Tuesday night, many of last year’s proposals remain unfinished — stymied by a politically divided Washington.
His gun control push has petered out. His immigration overhaul is stuck in the Republican-led House. Congress has not heeded his call to raise the minimum wage. And, in the year since his speech, neither the House nor the Senate, where his party is in control, has even held a hearing on a bill to expand preschool.
White House spokesman Jay Carney conceded that progress on last year’s proposals was “modest,” but searched for a favorable benchmark: “It was not modest compared to what we’d seen in previous years.”
Obama’s predicament is hardly unique.
Nearly all modern presidents have used the State of the Union address to showcase policy goals both real and still somewhat imagined. The proposals have been high-minded. But they have also been small-bore (President Clinton famously endorsed school uniforms and watching less television). They have been dreamy (President George H.W. Bush wanted money “to plant a billion trees a year”). They have been catchy (Obama’s “Buffett rule” would have ensured that billionaires paid a higher tax rate).
And they have included fixtures, such as healthcare reform, that have been featured in nearly every address for decades. For Obama, the revolving cast has also included mortgage assistance, infrastructure spending, tax reform and college affordability. Despite the prime-time spotlight, many proposals seem to fade quickly.
“I think what you’re going to hear from the president on Tuesday night is a series of concrete, practical, specific proposals on how we restore opportunity through a wide set of means: job training, education, manufacturing, energy. And these will be some legislative proposals, but also a number of actions he can take on his own,” White House advisor Dan Pfeiffer said on “Fox News Sunday.”
The president wants to work with Congress, Pfeiffer wrote over the weekend in an email to supporters, but “will not wait for Congress.”
Obama made similar pledges to flex his executive muscle in last year’s speech and spent the last few weeks making good on some. He named five “promise zones,” impoverished areas that received top priority for federal money. He awarded a research project in North Carolina millions of dollars, as part of his goal of creating a network of manufacturing innovation centers. He accepted a report on voting reform from a commission he had touted.
On Tuesday, he will announce new initiatives, which the White House has declined to discuss. “He’ll certainly aim high,” Carney said. “Presidents ought to aim high. I don’t think any president has ever gone before Congress and said, ‘I hope to do this, this, this and this with you that year’ and, at the end of the year, discovered that his list was too short, that everything got done.”
Still, the status of past proposals offers a glimpse of the prospects for success. Most initiatives Obama can push on his own are incremental, while most large-scale proposals move at glacial pace, or not at all.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are no more likely this year than last to endorse expensive programs — even in the name of job creation. They have shown little interest in minimum-wage legislation; bills that would raise it to more than $10 per hour have drawn no Republican cosponsors. Immigration reform stands as the notable exception, not because Obama has prioritized it, but because some Republicans see it as a necessary step for the party to win over Latino voters.
The first year in the life Obama’s preschool plan illustrates the nature of the hurdles ahead. Although Republican governors have moved to expand public preschool and polls show such efforts are popular, the launch of the federal effort was slow and sputtering.
The White House proposed paying to make preschool available to 4-year-olds in nearly all low- and moderate-income families with a 94-cent tobacco tax, an idea spurned by lawmakers from both parties.
“I was happy to see they at least had some sort of plan for paying for this. It was in itself a bold statement,” said Lisa Guernsey, director of the early education initiative at the New America Foundation. “But in reality the idea of raising a tax to pay for this was met with a lot of silence.”
The bill took months to draft and, even then, did not include a way to pay for it. In November, it was unveiled by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Democratic lawmakers and its one Republican coauthor in the House. Two months later, only one other Republican has signed on.
But the budget bill passed this month included $250 million to help states expand preschool programs. The White House and its allies view that money as a “down payment” on the president’s plan. House Republicans deny it had anything to do with Obama’s proposal.
Still, the White House takes credit for creating momentum on a major policy issue.
“I think that what you will see over the course of this year, and moving into the next couple of years, is preschool and access to high-quality preschool for our kids prior to kindergarten emerge as a national priority and a national imperative,” said Roberto Rodriguez, the White House education advisor. “I think you’ll see it emerge from states. You’ll see it emerge from cities. It will take some time to reach Congress, but it will reach Congress.”