The 2014 State of the Union marked new lows for President Obama. Fewer than 33.3 million people tuned in, the lowest of his presidency, and his approval rating of 43 percent was the lowest of all his approval ratings at the time of the annual address. Despite these numbers, everyone who tuned in saw a president who remains optimistic about his ability to push his agenda in 2014.
At his end-of-year press conference, Obama was eager to move past 2013. The President heads into 2014 determined to pursue his agenda. While he’s willing to work with Congress, it’s clear their stalemate will not stop him from achieving his goals.
The most notable example of this, mentioned during the speech, was his executive order to raise the minimum wage paid by federal contractors to $10.10. President Obama’s executive order foreshadows how he will approach future problems—which raises some issues. There are many limits on such orders: they have less reach than a piece of legislation, and can be undone by a future president. In the battle over the minimum wage, Obama opted to call on employers and business leaders, rather than Congress, to lead by example. Obama’s rhetoric indicates that he considers the executive order an appropriate response to other issues as well, such as his new retirement plan and fighting inequality.
Obama’s order signals a new strategy after his legacy and credibility were compromised in 2013. Americans should expect to see President Obama no longer bound by Congress. Policy changes will likely have a more executive-focused flavor. While policies enacted through executive order will have a shorter reach and more restraints, Obama’s strained relationship with Congress has burned him in the past. With many experts predicting significant Republican gains in 2014, this relationship may not improve for the rest of his Presidency. Republicans in Congress have taken notice of his executive ego and will attack the President on any issue that is tied to the administration—from healthcare to ceiling fan efficiency standards. With this speech, Obama signals that he will distance himself from both Congress and the previous year’s pitfalls.
Obama is also looking to move past the botched Obamacare rollout. Showing that he fully embraced his signature piece of legislation, Obama delivered a sales pitch with a remarkably optimistic tone, in contrast to the apologetic, defensive one Americans heard not too long ago. Without a mention of the faulty website or the many Americans who lost their coverage, he instead focused on the success stories and urged everyone to sign up and tell others to sign up. Michael Waldman, former director of speechwriting for Bill Clinton, noted that if Obamacare succeeds, Obama’s adamant and energetic defense of the bill will narrate story. The president’s strong defense of the bill suggests that he is welcoming a fight. Many of the initial problems with the implementation are now solved or in the process of being fixed, and Obama is putting the ball in the Republicans’ court.
Entering his sixth year in office, Obama recognizes that this is a crucial moment for how his legacy will be defined. A massive bill with his name on it is limping but slowly improving. His presidency, especially since the Republicans won the House in 2010, has been characterized by unproductivity and gridlock. The State of the Union holds little consequence in terms of the nitty-gritty details of legislation, but Obama’s optimistic tone and vision for the upcoming year tells a great deal about how his administration is changing its strategy. He appears to be picking his fights with Congress this year, when he knows he cannot beat them, he is keeping the option of issuing an executive order open. Gun control, which received considerable airtime in the 2013 State of the Union and in the months following the Sandy Hook shooting, was given a mere two sentences this year. The administration’s effort to pass gun control legislation last year stalled in the Senate; this solidified the image of a gridlocked Congress and an ineffective president. In his State of the Union this year, Obama looked to leave such losses behind and give Americans a reason to believe in the optimistic vision for which they voted.
The image featured in this article is an official White House photo.