Six months later, Obama State of the Union policy goals gathering dust

Nearly six months after President Obama used his State of the Union address to outline a broad, progressive agenda for his second term, many of the policy priorities that earned applause from his base appear to be gathering dust.

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The White House and Democratic allies insist that the president is making measurable progress on his goals, noting instances where Obama has taken executive action on his own or built coalitions with Republicans in the Senate.

They also argue that even where the president falls short of legislative wins, he has framed the issues to succeed down the road. Obama’s continued push for priorities recognized as popular with voters forces Republican lawmakers to both oppose the measure and reinforce their obstinate reputation, strategists say.

But a look at the list of policy goals the president pushed for in his February address reveals little movement on a wide variety of objectives.

“It was the beginning of his second term, and he made a very bold declaration of liberal values, kind of moving away from some of the pragmatism in the first term,” said Princeton University political scientist Julian Zelizer. “Republicans didn’t react very well.”

The White House's problem is perhaps best epitomized by the battle over gun control. The crescendo of February’s speech was the president's emotional call for a vote on new regulations, noting the presence of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) — who was shot by a would-be assassin — in the audience.

But the president's push for new gun controls flamed out in the Senate, where Democrats were unable to corral enough votes even for a background check expansion favored by two-thirds of all Americans.

A proposal to raise the minimum wage to $9 per hour hasn’t earned a hearing in the House of Representatives yet, and Democratic plans are unlikely to progress to a vote. Earlier this week, fast food workers in seven cities nationwide went on strike to protest the $7.25 going rate.

The president also made an impassioned call to repeal the sequester — $80 billion in across-the-board cuts to the federal budget. But with a fresh round of budget battles arriving this fall, Republicans insist they want to maintain the same level of austerity.

In one of the more poignant moments of his address, the president pointed to a 102-year-old woman in the audience who waited hours to vote in the 2012 election.

Although Obama has appointed a new commission to examine voter access and poll waiting times, there are few substantive steps the federal panel can take to force the state and local governments that facilitate voting to act. Meanwhile, a Supreme Court decision striking down a crucial provision of the Voting Rights Act will likely open the floodgates to stricter voter identification requirements in Southern states.

And on immigration, a rare legislative win in the Senate — where a comprehensive reform package passed in a bipartisan 68-32 vote — has been neutered by the insistence of House Republicans that they will address changes to immigration law in a piecemeal fashion. President Obama had hoped to sign a bill before the August recess, but the House has barely begun work on their reform efforts.

The effect of gridlock has begun to wear on the president’s approval ratings. A Marist poll released last week showed just 41 percent of Americans approving of the job the president was doing, his lowest numbers since September 2011.

Despite a laundry list of instances where the president’s agenda has become mired, White House officials are preaching patience.

“The gridlock of the moment is not predictive of what is going to happen in the future on big issues,” senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said last week at a Christian Science Monitor breakfast.

“If we’d had this breakfast in August of 2011, and I had said to you, 'the president is going to go out and he’s going to campaign and he’s going to make the case for protecting tax cuts on the middle class and raising the rates on the wealthy back to what they were under Bill Clinton,' you all would have laughed me out of the room,” he continued.

White House spokesman Bobby Whithorne said the “State of the Union provides a unique opportunity to talk directly to the American people about the initiatives that’ll help middle-class families.”

“He’ll continue to look for willing partners on both sides of the aisle to move the ball forward on a whole host of issues,” he continued.

Nor was the address a total wash. In June, the president announced new limits on carbon dioxide pollution from both new and existing coal-fired power plants — fulfilling his promise to take executive action to address climate change.

The president also used executive authority to authorize connecting 99 percent of American classrooms to high-speed Internet access. 

And a Supreme Court ruling striking down major provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act helped fulfill Obama’s “unfinished task” to level the playing field no matter “who you love.”

Last week’s failure of a Transportation bill in the House also suggested that there were limits to what moderate House Republicans would stomach in the interest of cutting discretionary spending, improving the odds the White House could prevail in the looming budget fight.

Zelizer says that by outlining his plans in the State of the Union, Obama was able to preemptively justify his regulatory and executive actions.

“The last thing he wants to do is do something on climate change and have people says he’s a tyrant,” he said. “If you justify the idea and justify the challenge, then it frees up a little more room to do something via executive action.”

Democratic strategist Doug Thornell says that the president’s speech could also pay dividends down the road. Simply by championing popular initiatives, the president can force Republicans committed to opposing his agenda to stake out positions that hurt the GOP’s nationwide brand.

“The speech serves as a vehicle to lay out his vision and implicitly contrasting that to what the Republican agenda is,” Thornell said. “Right now, he’s dealing with the least productive Congress in history, and that’s going to come boomerang back on them.”