Going into his second term, President Obama is facing a dilemma. On the one hand, he still wants to pursue an ambitious liberal legislative agenda. On the other hand, he knows that as long as Republicans have control of the House and 45 seats in the Senate, he won’t be able to enact it. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, he responded by laying the groundwork to bypass Congress in his second term.
To be sure, Obama did outline an ambitious legislative agenda. He called for comprehensive immigration reform, gun control and a $9 minimum wage. He proposed universal pre-school, more infrastructure spending and backed a bill that would encourage mortgage refinancing. He also described a centralized industrial policy for manufacturing and energy. He couched all of this in bipartisan sounding rhetoric about “reasonable compromise” and putting “the nation’s interests before party.” But on multiple occasions, these proposals were accompanied by vows to take executive action.
For instance, he proposed the creation of 18 more “manufacturing innovation institutes,” but said he was launching three of them through the Departments of Defense and Energy. More significantly, Obama addressed global warming, urging “Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change,” before warning, “if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.” This could be interpreted as a sign that he plans to have the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions without Congress.
Putting aside any legal or policy questions, a political problem with Obama’s approach is that even though executive actions are aimed at goading Congress into acting, or perhaps salvaging some sort of second-term agenda if he cannot get what he wants through Congress, it could also backfire. That is, if he’s going around threatening executive action on climate change, Republicans are much less likely to want to strike a grand bargain on immigration or his other legislative priorities.