My fellow Americans, the state of the Barack Obama presidency is:
Cautious? Defiant? Constrained? Humbled?
How about “all of the above”?
Compared with last year’s State of the Union address, the president lowered his expectations this year. I’m sure he was thinking of the meager fruits of last year’s address. The Washington Post’s fact-checkers awarded him only five “wins” out of 24 proposals they checked.
Among the most stunning losses were proposed expanded mandatory background checks and other gun-safety measures that Obama promoted in a bipartisan package. Its failure in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings said volumes about the strength of Obama’s conservative opposition.
This year, Obama reminded me of Bill Clinton’s agenda adjustments after his own proposed health care proposal collapsed and the government went through back-to-back shutdowns in faceoffs with House Republicans led by Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Clinton won re-election after famously “triangulating” conservative and liberal ideas into a sweeping welfare reform law and small-bore programs like “more cops on the street” and uniforms in public schools to broaden his appeal.
Obama did not go as far as Clinton, who brought Republicans to their feet with his own State of the Union declaration that “the era of big government is over.”
Instead, Obama threw down his own brand of right-winger-shaming: vowing to act unilaterally through executive actions and his bully pulpit if Congress fails to act on his issues, such as raising the minimum wage, which, like gun safety in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, failed to pass the Republican House last year.
Yet Obama might find his best-chance legislative compromise in an issue that lately has seemed to be on life support: an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.
Curiously, immigration was an issue the president barely mentioned in this year’s speech. Maybe he does not want to interfere with those Republicans who actually agree with him on the need to bring the nation’s millions of undocumented workers out of the shadows.
In a surprisingly soft sell, Obama said only, “It is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders and law enforcement — and fix our broken immigration system.”
That soft approach is a reflection of reality in today’s Congress: The sure way to kill a proposal among conservative House Republicans is to have Obama’s name attached to it.
Yet in the wake of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s defeat, Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio has new incentives to maneuver immigration legislation past conservative opponents in his own caucus. Many conservatives still oppose anything resembling a “pathway to citizenship.” Democrats oppose anything less.
But Obama has signaled a possible opening to legalization that would not shut the door on eventual citizenship.
At the annual policy retreat by House Republicans after the president’s address, Boehner’s leadership team introduced a new set of the principles for a possible pathway to legalization. Discussions are preliminary, but Boehner may well be feeling new confidence after he went along with his conservative tea party faction to the brink of default on the national debt last year.
That gives Boehner new elbow room in winning over a majority of his own caucus or, failing that, getting immigration legislation passed with a healthy minority of Republicans and a winning number of Democrats, as long as neither side feels too wounded to go along with the deal.
With that in mind, what Obama said in his State of the Union address might turn out to be less important than what he left unsaid: Democrats and Republicans have good reasons, political and otherwise, to show real progress in solving disputes over our broken immigration system.
But that progress may have to wait. First, Republicans face a primary season that has many conservative incumbents fending off tea party challenges from their further right.
Immigration reform is showing new signs of life, but politics must come first.
Clarence Page, a member of the Tribune’s editorial board, blogs at chicagotribune.com/pagespage.