A.B. Stoddard: The descent of Obama

A.B. Stoddard: The descent of Obama
© Greg Nash

OPINION l Well, that’s it. President Obama has likely addressed his last large audience, before his party faces probable losses in the midterm elections this November, and given his final State of the Union speech of any significance. Next year, barring a crisis, the president will be a bit player at the SOTU event, eclipsed by maneuvering 2016 candidates, gloating by Republicans, assuming they’ve won back control of the Senate, and plans by both parties for the post-Obama era.

Obama handled a dreadful task well. He is painfully aware of the pessimism in the polls and how unpopular his signature accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act, remains. He knows how much trust he lost, after Americans learned he wasn’t telling them the truth, that millions of them actually couldn’t keep their doctors. He’s been told of the resentment so many Democrats have toward him and his team for tuning out their concerns, requests and ideas for all these years. And, having plummeted 15 percentage points in popularity since getting reelected 14 months ago, Obama certainly can appreciate that Republicans, ever hyper-critical, now feel they have him “on the ropes,” as one official for former President George W. Bush described it.

Obama knew that, in spite of unemployment falling from more than 10 percent in his first year in office to 6.7 percent now, the stock market raging and the housing market markedly improving, he still could not come before the country and take full credit for a recovery most Americans still call a recession. And six years and two elections later, the president knows even better than his critics that he has not accomplished his goals of slowing the rise of the oceans, transcending partisanship or alleviating wage stagnation.

The address wasn’t inspiring, nor was it surprising, but it was notable for what it lacked: pointed partisan attacks and the fusillade of executive action the White House has been hinting at. The Democrats loved Obama’s lines about improving women’s wages and opportunity, as well as the shot he took at Republicans holding 40 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. But generally, he played nice. There was no attack on new cuts to food stamps in the just-passed farm bill, no threat to do an end run on immigration reform should the GOP’s efforts stall, and, despite an early mention of the government shutdown, no professor’s lecture on Republican obstruction.

Obama loves his new “I have a pen and a phone” threat, but he didn’t detail anything new, save for a minimum wage increase for federal contractors. Talking about going around Congress is his go-to refrain, but a rhetorical cudgel is quite different from taking action. In the weeks and months to come, should Congress breeze through raising the debt ceiling, as is now expected, begin earnest work on passing immigration reform and start writing budgets again, why would an unpopular president poke them in the eye?

Polls show Democrats could lose the Senate should Obama’s popularity, or that of ObamaCare, plunge any lower. He can say he isn’t going to wait for Congress, but he and his party are better off if he stops there. Obama has circumvented Congress enough that even supporters have criticized him for it. Professor Jonathan Turley of The George Washington University told The Christian Science Monitor this week that though he voted for Obama, the president meets “every definition of an imperial president. ... He is the president that Richard Nixon always wanted to be.”

Members of Congress are finally working in a bipartisan way for the first time in years. The best thing for Obama, should he seek any more accomplishments, is to get out of their way.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.