WASHINGTON — His ambitions in check and his eye on the calendar, President Obama intends to use his State of the Union address to put a difficult year behind him and reassert command before the capital is consumed with election-year politics.
After five years in office, Obama has, by his own account, come to feel acutely the constraints on his power and the shrinking horizons before him, all of which makes his nationally televised speech to Congress on Tuesday a critical opportunity to drive an agenda that may shape his legacy.
But perhaps more than in any of his previous congressional addresses, Obama realizes he has little chance of major legislative victories this year, with the possible exception of an overhaul of immigration law that Republicans are also making a priority. As a result, aides said, he will present a blueprint for “a year of action” on issues such as income inequality and the environment that bypasses Congress and exercises his authority to the maximum extent.
“This presidency is not going to be defined from here forward by big legislative initiatives,” said Jeff Shesol, a former speechwriter for President Clinton whom this administration consulted. “Given that, he’s got to convey a sense of focus and forward momentum.”
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After failing to push through gun-control legislation and other priorities he raised in last year’s State of the Union address, Obama must take a different approach this year.
“There’s a challenge to the breadth that he can adopt,” said Neera Tanden, president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “Pushing for a series of new initiatives when last year’s initiatives still need to get done is a challenge.”
Obama will still use the speech to push for an immigration overhaul, with aides guardedly optimistic that he may reach a compromise with Republicans. He will also call for a higher minimum wage, more infrastructure spending and an expansion of prekindergarten education, issues on which the parties are less likely to agree.
White House officials said Obama would use the speech to announce executive actions he can take without congressional approval to expand economic opportunity for middle-class workers in areas like retirement security and job training.
In an email to supporters Saturday, the president’s senior adviser, Dan Pfeiffer, characterized Obama’s coming message as “opportunity, action and optimism” and promised “a set of real, concrete, practical proposals” to strengthen the economy and expand opportunity.
The address comes as Obama’s sense of possibility has contracted. A year after a re-election victory, when he had a 57 percent approval rating, his support has fallen to 42 percent. Within months, lawmakers will be absorbed by the midterm elections, and after that, attention will shift to the 2016 president election.
These days, rather than talking about saving the planet, Obama envisions a more modest place in the tide of history. “At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story,” he told David Remnick, of The New Yorker, recently. “We just try to get our paragraph right.”
Obama suggested that although he might not accomplish his goals during his tenure, he hoped to plant seeds. “The things you start may not come to full fruition on your timetable. But you can move things forward. And sometimes the things that start small may turn out to be fairly significant.”
He is not the first president to recognize the disparity between the perception and reality of his power. George W. Bush was asked by an aide what had surprised him about being president. “How little authority I have,” he answered.
While interest in the State of the Union has fallen, it is still an opportunity to reach more than 30 million Americans unfiltered. “For that one night, he’ll have the spotlight the way no other person in the country will have all year,” said Robert Schlesinger, author of “White House Ghosts,” a history of presidential speechwriters. “As limited as the powers of the bully pulpit are … that still ain’t nothing.”