'New' Obama tinkers rather than transforms

2014-01-29 13:04
US President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. (Jewel Samad, AFP)

US President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress. (Jewel Samad, AFP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories


Obama's full State of the Union address

2014-01-29 08:31

Watch US President Barack Obama's full State of the Union address. WATCH

Washington - Once he galvanised vast crowds with the cry: "let's go change the world!"

Now, if Barack Obama is still remolding the planet, he's doing it in baby steps.

Hemmed in by Republicans, slowed by personal missteps and leaking inspiration after five rough years, the US president has embraced incrementalism.

Obama did unfurl a punchy, optimistic State of the Union address on Tuesday, billing the fight against income disparity as the defining project of the age.

But there was no multi-billion dollar program or a "moonshot" style challenge for 21st century Americans.

Instead, Obama offered modest, targeted plans using the power of his office to bypass Congress, which has let its own reforming muscle wither.

Once, Obama vowed to slow the oceans' rise and to mend Washington's "broken politics".

Now, he plots a way over the political mire - with "ladders" to give everyone a leg up on retirement savings, a decent wage, education and health care.

"What we are seeing is a different Barack Obama," said William Rosenberg, a professor of political science at Drexel University, Philadelphia.


Obama powered into office on a wave of expectation and had the luck to follow a deeply unpopular predecessor in George W Bush.

He exploited Democratic control of Congress to pile up the kind of legislative record that few recent presidents could boast - banning torture, saving the auto industry and passing big health care and Wall Street reforms.

But now, with power in Washington divided, the hope and change that defined him is largely in the past.

One example: Obama has spent years waxing lyrical on the need for immigration reform.

But on Tuesday, he trod carefully on the issue - his one potential second term domestic legacy win - lest he spook conservatives agonising whether to sign up.

On the other potential big ticket item - a nuclear deal with Iran - Obama was more firm, promising to veto any new sanctions he says could kill diplomacy.

But the new Obama is neither a seeker of consensus nor a political pit bull fighting Republican lawmakers to exhaustion.

Instead, he bills himself as an independent, activist president, using regulation and fiat to bend the political climate his way.

He will raise the minimum wage for federal workers even if Congress won't do it for everyone.

He will regulate power plants to cut harmful emissions if he can't pass meaningful climate change bills.

And he will call on CEOs not to discriminate against the long-term unemployed even as Republicans will block job stimulus plans.

But the power a president can wield alone is finite - more tinkering than transformation.

And at times on Tuesday there was a sense of a White House assigning work to keep itself busy with three years still to go - for example Obama's charge to Vice President Joe Biden to launch a review of work training programmes.

Obama's evolution from change-animated campaigner into trudging administrator is not unique.


Presidents are often frustrated by America's adversarial centres of power, a political system that auto-corrects after sharp changes of direction and power that ebbs with the two-term clock.

But Obama's eclipse has been more marked, such was his historic promise as the first African American president.

It is tempting to wonder what the Obama of 2008 would think of the programme he rolled out Tuesday.

Candidate Obama had no time for nudging the ball forward.

He saw himself as a transformative president, more Ronald Reagan than Bill Clinton - who Obama aides privately criticised for an incremental approach.

At least Obama appeared fresh on Tuesday - more lively than the listless leader who limped off to Hawaii after a brutal 2013.

He came across as a president determined to make the best of his remaining time.

"Presidents, Republican and Democratic are there because they want to accomplish things," said Rosenberg, in a glimpse into the president's psyche.

Obama seems to have made a calculation that while he lacks power to pass tax reform or bring peace to Syria, he must concentrate influence where it is most effective.

One senior aide however argued vehemently hours before the State of the Union speech against claims Obama was now just working at the margins.

Try telling a poor student that got into college that their chance was not a big deal, the official said, in remarks not for quoting, slamming conventional media wisdom in Washington.

While they lack sparkle, moves like raising take home pay, and widening access to health care and education can make a difference, said Maureen Conway, of the Aspen Institute.

"I think they do have a tangible impact, they get at basic family economic issues. They are fundamental to the way people live their lives every day."

But the president must be careful ahead of mid-term elections in November.

Pushing executive power too far will spur Republican charges of a power grab and discomfort vulnerable Democrats in mid-term elections.

But if Obama holds back, Washington pundits will be ready to brand him a lame duck.

Read more on:    barack obama  |  us  |  us healthcare  |  us economy

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.