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Obama: Time for Congress to get out of the way

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 28, 2014 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 28, 2014 in Washington, DC.

It took more than 6,840 words. But President Obama's State of the Union address to Congress really boiled down to one anodyne message: I have led—and so can you! 

The central theme of the address was familiar: Economic opportunity has eluded too many ordinary Americans despite the progress the country has made so far. And Obama made special mention of the long-term unemployed, making the case once again for extending federal benefits.

But he hit on nearly every issue by chiding Congress for not doing more and pointing out his own good example, akin to a parent addressing a room full of stubborn children who didn't listen the last time around either. And his tone was far more coaxing than confrontational.

"Last year, I asked this Congress to help states make high-quality pre-K available to every four year-old. As a parent as well as a president, I repeat that request tonight," he said. Meanwhile, he continued, "as Congress decides what it's going to do, I'm going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need." 

Be it infrastructure, energy production, or job-training, the president took the same tack: Why look, Congress, at everything you haven't done, and what I'm going to do regardless. And his urging remained non-partisan and mild in tone. He made a passing mention of his "Republican friends" who opposed Obamacare, but his dig against them taking "forty-something votes" to repeal it was more of a punch line than a rebuke. For most of the speech, he went out of his way to address both Republicans and Democrats in the same breath. "Last year, part of the Voting Rights Act was weakened.  But conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats are working together to strengthen it." What government shutdown?

On first glance, this seems to be what many centrist pundits have been demanding— for Obama to lead, gosh darn it! Certainly that's what the president wanted to project—a competent, pragmatic executive who has moved far beyond the botched Obamacare rollout (which he didn't mention until well into the speech). "To every mayor, governor, and state legislator in America, I say, you don't have to wait for Congress to act; Americans will support you if you take this on.  And as a chief executive, I intend to lead by example," he said, citing the need to raise the minimum wage and his own executive order to do so for federally contracted workers. 

The president did break from his conciliatory tone when it came to Iran. "If this Congress sends me a new sanctions bill now that threatens to derail these talks, I will veto it. For the sake of our national security, we must give diplomacy a chance to succeed," he declared.

But Obama's speech also made it clear how little he can do without Congress. For all his prodding of the lawmakers sitting before him, there seemed to be little sense that such major legislative action is actually imminent, and Obama wasn't about to shake them down over it. 

He made a point of singling out Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio's proposal to reform the Earned Income Tax Credit for lower-income Americans. But the disheartening reality is that both parties already agree on the broad outlines of what needs to get done—immigration reform, tax reform, patent reform. But in its current gridlocked state, Congress cannot get more than the bare minimum done, no matter how much, or how little urging, Obama does. 

Obama's emphasis on acting without Congress could still pay dividends for the Democratic agenda. The White House's relationships with state officials remains integral to the success of Obamacare, as Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's presence at the speech—and big mention in Obama's remarks—made clear. But as daunting as "unilateral action" by the White House may sound, its deployment is less of a threat than a sigh of resignation.

The most memorable moment of the night, in fact, wasn't about what Obama said at all: It came when the president introduced Cory Remsburg, an Army ranger recovering from a severe brain injury after being struck by a bomb in Afghanistan on his tenth deployment. Having continued the war that had wounded him, Congress and the president did all they could in that moment—stand and applaud.