Without Congress, Obama must act on his own

January 29, 2014 

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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.

WIN MCNAMEE — Getty Images

It is now more than four years since U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson interrupted President Barack Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress with a shout of “You lie.”

Wilson made a fool of himself, though his South Carolina constituents have sent him back to Congress twice since then, the last time unopposed. But as the president spoke to another joint session Tuesday for his State of the Union address, Wilson’s 2009 outburst echoed as a kind of prophesy.

It’s not that the president lied, but much of what he would subsequently propose in that chamber did not come true. The House, dominated by rabid Republicans who can scarcely conceal their contempt for the president, have blocked his initiatives at every turn. In the process, their intransigence has produced one of the most unproductive Congresses in American history.

So it was on Tuesday night that Obama looked out over the assembled obstacles to the nation’s progress and decided to drop the fantasy that he could persuade them to do what the country needs. Instead, he said he would do what he could alone.

“America does not stand still, and neither will I,” he said. “So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Withdrawing to goals within his executive power means drawing in the grand outlines of changes the president proposed in the past. He announced a smaller agenda, but a realistic one. He will increase the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 for federal contractors, and he will make it easier for low-income people to save for retirement. Those proposals will come true, no matter what the Joe Wilsons think.

It was a welcome though sadly belated assertion by Obama. He long ago should have gone to political war with the Republican-led House. He should have held them up for scrutiny as they refused to act in the face of high unemployment, stalled wages and growing inequity of income and opportunity.

Instead, the president lowered his goals in search of the possible before accepting that gaining Republican support was impossible. No matter how lofty and varied the president’s agenda, the Republican agenda included – and still includes – only one item: Stymie Obama.

Indeed, Republicans are now taking a harder look at whether they can block not only legislation, but also executive orders.

“We’re going to watch very closely because there’s a Constitution that we all take an oath to, including him, and following that Constitution is the basis for our republic, and we shouldn’t put that in jeopardy,” Speaker John A. Boehner said.

Left undone by a do-nothing Congress are the big issues: immigration reform, gun control, job creation, extended aid to the jobless and the expansion of pre-kindergarten programs as the first rung on a ladder of opportunity.

The House, however, did ease the gridlock Wednesday. It finally approved and sent to the Senate a compromise farm bill, ending a two-year impasse on what is normally routine legislation. The bill includes $800 million in annual cuts in food stamps – a reduction from the $4 billion a year in cuts House conservatives sought. While cutting the food stamps, the bill adds $200 million to help food banks serve the growing lines of hungry people.

In the House, that reduced punishment of the needy counts as progress. And that, no matter what the Joe Wilsons say, is no lie.

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