Opinion: With State of the Union speech, Obama will take case to the people

Here are the highlights of President Obama’s formal addresses to Congress so far:

First, Congressman Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) screaming “You Lie!” at Obama’s factual statement that health care reform would not apply to illegal immigrants during a fall 2009 address. Second, Justice Sam Alito mouthing the words “not true” as Obama tore into the Citizens United decision during the 2010 State of the Union. 

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In neither of these speeches, nor in any of the others he has delivered inside the Capitol, did the President offer any bold policy announcements.

In this year’s State of the Union, scheduled for February 12, the President opens a prime-time window of about 100 days to make significant headway on his second term agenda. At most the President has a year and a half before mid-term elections reduce him to a lame duck with no clout over a Congress defined by first-term GOP efforts to block his agenda.

Top White House aides tell me the President now has “clear-eyes” about Congressional politics. The President likes Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) but views him as a weak negotiating partner, unable to rein in the Tea Party faction of the GOP intent on blocking budget deals as well as gun control laws, immigration and education reform.

As a result the President continues to look at executive actions he can sign without Congressional action – such as recent orders on gun control. But that can only go so far. As the President stands to give this year’s SOTU speech he knows he has to exert political power on Congress to act on legislation that would be central to his second term agenda and legacy.

That effort began with the inaugural address. The President played to the pitifully low public approval for Congress and especially House Republicans. He belittled self-serving politicians who “mistake absolutism for principle…spectacle for politics or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” He challenged Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget Committee chair, by defending Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and arguing entitlements do not create “a nation of takers,” but allow Americans to “take risks that make a nation great.”

The politically aggressive stance by the president led Speaker Boehner to say last week that the President is intent on trying to “annihilate the Republican Party” and “shove us [House Republicans] into the dustbin of history.”

The Speaker is right. The president is now punching back at the House GOP.

On the Senate side, the president is also focused on minimizing the GOP’s power to obstruct his agenda with filibusters. Filibusters by the Senate GOP have prevented the Democratic majority (now 55 votes strong, including the two independents who caucus with the Democrats) from passing laws with a simple majority. 

“In my State of the Union last year, I urged Congress to take steps to fix the way they do business...” the president said last week in what sounded like a concession speech after the Senate voted only to make it easier to get a bill to a floor vote. “Too often over the past four years, a single Senator…has been able to unilaterally block or delay bipartisan legislation for the sole purpose of making a political point.”

Now the President will go outside Washington with campaign-style speeches – including the SOTU -- to pressure Congress to act on his legislative agenda. 

The push starts this week with a speech in Nevada to discuss his plans for getting Congress to act on immigration reform.

Republicans appear to be falling in line for an immigration deal because of the political power displayed by the President in the last election when he won more than 70 percent of the Latino vote. Last week the President met with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus at the White House and asked them to turn up the political pressure for a deal. 

One key sign of a shift in Republican attitudes on immigration was Sen. Marco Rubio’s (R-Fla.) recent agreement to join a bipartisan group in the Senate negotiating a first draft of the new immigration law. Rubio is a Tea Party Republican who has long been opposed to the President’s ideas for immigration reform.

The President will similarly apply public opinion against the Republicans on several other key legislative goals. 

For example, Pew Research Center recently reported 70 percent of Americans say better schools needs to be a top priority for the president’s second term. That fits the president’s agenda. So, too, does 57 percent support for “dealing with the problems of the poor and needy.” There are major partisan splits. Republicans are far less likely to say protecting the environment is a priority. They are also far less likely to support gun control — only 22 percent of Republicans versus 56 percent of Democrats do so, according to the poll.

The numbers explain the President’s plan to use public opinion as leverage over Congressional Republicans. In the SOTU, look for the President to call for expansion of the Pell grant program. And on poverty programs, look for the President to shift the GOP focus on deficit reductions to discussions of how seniors and the poor will be hurt by big cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare.

President Obama knows that his second term agenda and by extension his political legacy urgently begin with this year’s State of the Union.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.