SMALL BALL: Obama downsizes ambition as agenda stalls


By Ben Wolfgang-The Washington Times

2014 State of the Union

For President Obama, the biggest speech of the year has become smaller and smaller.


After laying out broad, ambitious goals around immigration reform, a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s tax code and serious action against climate change — proposals that, to a large degree, remain unfulfilled — in his first several State of the Union addresses, analysts say the president has made a subtle shift toward micropolicies and more specific, targeted ideas that are able to clear a gridlocked Congress or be enacted through executive action.


Indeed, one of the most notable parts of Tuesday night’s address was Mr. Obama’s plan to raise the minimum wage for federal contracts to $10.10 from $7.25, a substantial change but one that only underscores how this administration has been unable to muscle through Congress a broader minimum wage increase.


“Over the past five years, his number of requests have increased, but the requests have gotten smaller. He started out with some very big, very bold proposals, but eventually, when you look at [more recent speeches], the kinds of things he’s promising and asking for are smaller policies,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston who has written extensively on presidential speeches, including State of the Union addresses.


“Historically, the last couple of State of the Unions have been [full of] these small, penny-ante policies that haven’t amounted to that much,” Mr. Rottinghaus said.


The scaling-back of this year’s speech is a fact acknowledged in advance even by some of Mr. Obama’s closest Capitol Hill allies.


The speech won’t put forth “a grandiose agenda. It’s going to be a very practical agenda aimed at middle-class people,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, told The Wall Street Journal.


Just after taking office in 2009, Mr. Obama delivered a speech to a joint of session of Congress. While not technically a State of the Union address, it attracted much the same media coverage and included a similar type of broad agenda-setting. During that speech, Mr. Obama talked of cutting the federal deficit in half in four years, enacting fundamental tax reform, closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and other goals on which the administration has fallen short.

“These were all promises out of that [first term] notion of hubris. As he moved forward, the proposals became smaller and more manageable,” Mr. Rottinghaus said.


A speechwriter for Ronald Reagan told Time magazine in an interview that presidents run out of big things to propose during their second terms.