Obama takes a two-pronged approach


WASHINGTON — President Obama’s State of the Union speech demonstrated a rule for governing in politically divided times: Insert yourself the least where the chance of success is best.

Obama devoted nearly nine minutes at the top of his speech to a meticulous description of his bargaining position for the next round of budget confrontations with congressional Republicans. He detailed at length his proposals for replacing the automatic spending reductions that are scheduled to take effect next month, using the word “I” five times as he did so.

By contrast, Obama spent just two minutes on the subject he has called the administration’s top legislative priority: immigration reform. He claimed no specific proposals as his own, but praised “bipartisan groups in both chambers” who he said were “working diligently to draft a bill.”


That contrast ran through the speech — detailed and partisan on some issues, briefer and bipartisan on others. The two approaches reflect the contrasting strategies Obama intends to follow in his second term. They are strategies shaped by a reality that Obama has slowly come to accept during his years in office: Today’s highly polarized atmosphere sharply constrains what Theodore Roosevelt once labeled as the “bully pulpit” of the presidency.

On one side are issues like immigration or gun control, where Obama labeled no ideas as his own, but praised “senators of both parties” whom he described as “working together” on new efforts to combat gun violence.

White House officials say they believe those measures can pass this year and have worked to make sure that the president’s embrace doesn’t smother them.

Similarly, on climate change, Obama urged Congress to “pursue a bipartisan” proposal, specifically mentioning legislation pushed several years ago by the man he defeated in the 2008 presidential election, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The only reference he made to an action of his own was phrased in the negative: If Congress acted, he said, it could head off executive action to limit carbon emissions.

The opposite approach comes on proposals like Obama’s call for new government spending on roads, bridges and infrastructure. White House officials do not expect Congress to pass many of those ideas, if any, and feel free to tout them as ways to rally support among fellow Democrats.

On the budget, where administration officials see relatively little prospect that Democrats and Republicans can reach a broad agreement, Obama has stuck to his own proposals and tried to portray Republicans as unreasonable, labeling them, as he did in Tuesday night’s speech, as defenders of “special-interest tax breaks.” Administration officials believe that because the federal deficit has begun to shrink rapidly, and the government’s level of debt has roughly stabilized, they have no compelling need this year to make major concessions to reach a budget deal.


Obama has talked in general terms about the eventual need for “reforms” in Medicare — a code word for cuts that makes many congressional liberals nervous. If Congress began serious moves in that direction, the issue could cause a serious rupture within Obama’s party. But because he has coupled the idea with a demand for raising taxes by eliminating preferences, something Republicans have said they won’t accept, he runs little risk of being forced into confronting that division.

In his first year in office, Obama appeared to believe that he could sway the country, including members of the opposition, by the force of a carefully crafted speech. Over time, he and his top aides have embraced the opposite view: that a president can create opposition to an idea simply by embracing it as his own.

That may seem counterintuitive, but political scientists and pollsters repeatedly have found it to be true.

A recent Washington Post poll that asked about immigration reform provided new evidence. When asked, “Do you favor or oppose creating a way for illegal immigrants already here to become citizens if they meet certain requirements?” 70% of Americans surveyed said yes, including 60% of those who identified themselves as Republicans.

Then the pollsters added three words to the question, and asked this: “Obama has proposed creating a way for illegal immigrants already here to become citizens if they meet certain requirements. Do you favor or oppose this?” With the addition of his name, Republican support plummeted to 39%. The percentage of Republicans who said they were “strongly opposed” rose from 25% when Obama’s name was missing to 40% when his name was added.

Reactions of that sort are not unique to Obama and Republicans. Democrats reacted in similar ways during George W. Bush’s presidency. Indeed, claims of a bully pulpit notwithstanding, the evidence shows that presidents have very little ability to shift the attitudes of members of the opposition party. Ronald Reagan, famed for his communication skills, didn’t convert liberals to his cause.


What a president can do is rally his supporters to follow him. Immigration, for example, has divided Democrats in the past, but Obama’s support for legalizing the roughly 11 million people currently living in the county illegally has helped unify his party on the issue.

And while a president’s ability to sway public opinion has limits, the office still does give the incumbent an unparalleled ability to keep an issue on the national agenda simply by talking about it. Obama has demonstrated that ability in several speeches on the subject of gun control, and on Tuesday the issue inspired the most emotionally powerful part of his speech.

Those harmed by gun violence “deserve a vote” on gun control, he said, speaking over sustained applause as he called off the names of prominent shooting victims, declaring for each one that he or she “deserves a vote.”

His ability to keep the spotlight on the issue in the weeks to come — without getting in the way — will go a long way toward determining whether that vote occurs.