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Posts Tagged ‘State of the Union’

Can Obama circumvent Washington?

February 3rd, 2014


Washington is broken,” Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for president, said in September 2008. “My whole campaign has been premised from the start on the idea that we have to fundamentally change how Washington works.”

There are three ways that Washington works: compromise, crisis and clout. Compromise is the way Washington is supposed to work. It’s practically mandated by the Constitution, with its complex system of checks and balances and separation of powers. It’s the way the U.S. government has worked for more than 200 years.

But it’s not working very well any more. Party positions have dug in. Deal-making is harder now that there are fewer moderates in Congress. It has taken more than two years for the House of Representatives to pass a farm bill, and it’s already under attack by both conservatives and liberals.

Congress did pass a budget deal last month, and there’s a reasonable chance that some version of immigration reform will go through this year. In both cases, the driving force is fear. Congressional Republicans are desperate to avoid another government shutdown over the budget. They are also determined to avoid a repeat of 2012, when minority voters, angry over Republican opposition to immigration reform, voted overwhelmingly Democratic.

Things can get done quickly in Washington if there’s a sense of crisis in the country. It took only a few weeks after September 11 to pass the Patriot Act, for example. The financial crisis of 2008 drove a whole slew of legislation — from the government bailouts under President George W. Bush to Obama’s economic stimulus plan.

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, remarked early in the first term. “And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

But a crisis cannot be declared. It has to be real. Voters have to feel an overwhelming sense of urgency. That’s why politicians are always hyping issues. They declare an education crisis or an environmental crisis or an energy crisis. Or they try to rally the country to fight a “war” on something — a war on crime, a war on drugs, a war on poverty, a war on terror. If the public urgency is not authentic, however, opponents won’t have much trouble blocking government action.

Recently, Democrats have been talking about a growing crisis over income inequality. “Those at the top have never done better,” the president said Tuesday night. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened.”

The income gap between rich and poor in the United States is the widest of 10 advanced countries, according to the Pew Research Center. But fewer than half of Americans think it’s a big problem. That’s the lowest level of concern of any country except Australia, which has a much smaller income gap.

Obama is counting on the inequality issue to get two significant pieces of legislation through Congress this year: an increase in the federal minimum wage, which was last raised to $7.25 an hour in 2009, and an extension of benefits for the long-term unemployed.

“This Congress needs to restore the unemployment insurance you just let expire for 1.6 million people,” Obama told Congress.

The measures are far from certain to pass. Which is why the president decided to resort to Option 3 — clout. The White House calls it a “pen and phone” strategy. Use the pen to sign executive orders. Use the phone to persuade private operations to adopt policies that are in the public interest. No congressional action required.

During the State of the Union, the president singled out the owner of a Minneapolis pizza parlor who just gave his employees a raise. “Tonight,” Obama said, “I ask more of America’s business leaders to follow John’s lead and do what you can to raise your employees’ wages.”

Then Obama announced he was signing an executive order requiring future federal contractors to pay workers a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour. He also said he would sign executive orders mandating higher fuel efficiency standards for trucks, more investment in classroom technology and better federal job training programs.

“Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I am going to do,” the president told Congress.

Republican lawmakers are calling it a power grab, but who cares? The public’s opinion of Congress could hardly be worse. The problem is that executive orders are usually narrow and impermanent. “How many people, Mr. President,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) asked, “will this executive action [requiring future federal contractors to pay at least the minimum wage] actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero.”

An executive order can always be rescinded by the next president.  It’s much harder to repeal legislation — as Republicans are discovering with Obamacare.

Clout is an assertive approach to governing that usually produces modest results. Usually, but not always. The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, using his wartime authority as commander in chief. But it still did not have the force of law. In order to abolish slavery permanently, Lincoln had to maneuver Congress into passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution two years later. (It’s all in the movieLincoln.)

Obama’s speech was an acknowledgment of failure. He has not been able to “change how Washington works.” So he has to circumvent the process.

Obama is not alone. The last four presidents — two Democrats and two Republicans — all tried to change Washington. They all failed.

The problem isn’t Obama. The problem is the problem.

This piece was originally published via Reuters.

13 Thoughts on President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address

February 13th, 2013


  1. The spirit was less confrontational than the inaugural address. The President repeatedly called for bipartisanship and compromise. He denounced partisanship and called for common purpose.
  2. One thing Republicans will likely object to: the President’s repeated call for the wealthiest Americans to do “their fair share’” and pay more in taxes and Medicare premiums. Republicans will call that class warfare and more tax hikes.
  3.  The President made a strong argument that economic growth is a higher priority than deficit reduction. That’s where he and Republicans part company. Republicans believe deficit reduction is a prerequisite for economic growth. Obama said that “reckless spending cuts” will inhibit growth. He insisted on a “balanced’” approach to deficit reduction, including both “revenue increases” (mostly through tax reform) and cautious spending cuts.
  4. He called the looming sequesters (across-the-board spending cuts) a “manufactured crisis.”‘ That is exactly what they are. The American public has no idea where this impending crisis is coming from and they do not see it as real. The President re-enforced that notion and warned that allowing the sequesters to go into effect would jeopardize the nation’s security, devastate our priorities and cost “hundreds of thousands of jobs.” Bottom line: he called the sequesters “a really bad idea.”
  5. President Obama argued that nothing he proposed “should increase our deficit by a single dime.” Several of the initiatives he proposed would be financed without tax revenues. The Energy Security Trust would come from “oil and gas revenues.” Private capital would pay for the Partnership to Rebuild America.” The non-partisan commission to improve voting procedures would cost very little tax money.
  6. The only real anti-poverty measure he talked about was raising the minimum wage and pegging it to inflation — which costs government nothing.
  7. He probably rattled a lot of college and university administrators when he said that federal aid to colleges would be based partly on “affordability and value.” College costs have been increasing much faster than inflation, and he wants to force colleges to hold down costs.
  8. On foreign policy, he touted two things:
    • His record of ending wars, not starting them; and
    • His shift from massive military intervention to targeted counter-terrorism strikes. He responded to criticism of drone strikes by promising to “engage with Congress” to ensure that counter-terrorism strikes would be legal and transparent.
  9. Two foreign policy issues received particular emphasis:
    • Cyber security, which he depicted as a “rapidly growing threat,”; and
    • Human rights, which is likely to be elevated to a top foreign policy priority by the New America coalition that elected him.
  10. His call for comprehensive immigration reform was loud and clear. That’s where he knows Republicans are on the defensive.
  11. He mentioned gay rights only in passing — for instance, at the beginning, when he said that you should be able to get ahead in this country no matter “who you love.” But it may be unprecedented for any President to mention gays in a State of the Union speech.
  12. The most emotional moment in the speech came when he discussed gun violence and called attention to the victims. But the President did not specifically call for Congress to pass new gun controls. He simply said ”They deserve a vote.” That was very clever. He was insisting that members of Congress go on record for or against background checks, tougher gun trafficking laws and bans on high-capacity magazines and assault weapons, even if the measures fail (as many probably will). When legislators cast a vote against those things, they will become vulnerable to attack by their opponents as insensitive to gun violence. The President’s call got a rousing response from legislators, who chanted, “Vote! Vote! Vote!”
  13. Altogether, the State of the Union speech was not particularly bold or ambitious. It was realistic.

Mr. President, an idea on immigration

January 24th, 2012


This piece currently appears on CNN.

Count on it. President Obama will devote three sentences to immigration reform in the State of the Union.

Two dozen lawmakers will jump to their feet and applaud. One-third of the audience will give an obligatory clap. The rest will sit silently, stifling a yawn.

Five years ago, comprehensive immigration reform legislation seemed possible and deeply bipartisan. Now it seems as unlikely and distant as President Bush’s mission to Mars. And as for bipartisan? In the last go around, a Republican president led the charge. Today, no serious GOP presidential aspirant has the guts to support reform—evidenced again last night as both front-runners promised in the Florida debate to veto even the initially-Republican authored DREAM Act, and Romney grasped for straws by suggesting “self-deportation.”

Can immigration reform be saved?

To read the rest of the piece, click here.

Take Action: State of the Union Seating Campaign

January 23rd, 2012


“The dialogue in Washington isn’t working for anyone—not Congress, not Americans, and not America. We urge the leaders of both houses of Congress to permanently retire partisan seating at the State of the Union.”

– Jon Cowan, President, Third Way

If you support YOUR Congress sitting together at the State of the Union – please contact your members of Congress to let them know where you stand (and they should sit) in 2012.

Last year, with the leadership of Senators Mark Udall and Lisa Murkowski, we helped to end more than a century of tradition and had members of Congress sit together during the President’s State of the Union address. After another year of partisan heartburn, we are renewing and expanding this request:

1) Sit together during the State of the Union and make mixed seating permanent. The spectacle of one side of the room leaping to its feet and the other sitting glumly on its hands is just that – a spectacle. Let’s end this running joke once and for all.

2) Agree to a 24-hour ceasefire. In the 24 hours leading up to the State of the Union, we ask that politicians and their campaigns speak only about the merits of their ideas, not the demerits of the opposing party’s ideas.the other sitting glumly on its hands is just that – a spectacle. Let’s end this running joke once and for all.

3) Spend a weekend together. We ask that Congress set aside one weekend each year to gather together and spend time getting to know each other.

In short, we’re asking for Congress to sit together, not apart. Talk to each other, don’t yell. Know each other, don’t be strangers.

Here are some of the ways that you can help:

1. Tweet

Tweet your members of Congress using the hashtags #SitTogether and #24hrcivility. Call out egregious cases of incivility using the hashtag #24hrcivility.

2. Post

Ask your friends to support the #SitTogether campaign on your Facebook page. Link the letter to Congress and post the video or #SitTogether graphic on your page.

3. Tell the Story

Write a blog post about why civility in Congress matters and send us the link to your work. We’ll compile posts and add your entry on our Storify page. Check out our interactive Sit Together Tumblr and encourage others to play on Facebook and Twitter.


A civil action for SOTU

January 19th, 2012

by and

This piece originally appeared in Politico.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) have 28 years of Capitol Hill experience between them. Yet when these two supercommittee co-chairmen sat down for the panel’s opening meeting, it was the first time they ever met. Is it any wonder that the committee failed?

Third Way last week proposed three modest ideas based on a simple premise: Strangers make terrible legislators. We sent a letter to House and Senate congressional leaders, calling for concrete steps to improve civility, familiarity and discourse between members of opposing — and often warring — political parties. It’s an attempt to find an elixir to the poisonous atmosphere that has made Congress a non-functioning laughingstock.

The first idea is a repeat of a proposal we made last year, on the heels of the senseless shooting of Rep. Gabriel Giffords (D-Ariz.) and the deaths of six of her constituents. We again ask that Congress members sit together rather than in partisan enclaves during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address on Jan. 24.

Why do it again? For one, the spectacle of half the room leaping to its feet while the other sits glumly on its hands is just that – a spectacle. This one day, when the entire nation sits and listens to their president, Congress should appear as one body — not two sides.

This was a success last year. With the help of Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), more than 100 years of tradition was broken as members sat together during Obama’s address. There were surprising pairings, like Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) kibitzing with the ultra-conservative Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). Several legislators – including Coburn – began relationships and partnerships with members of the opposing party whom they had routinely ignored.

For the public, the State of the Union became a more civil and adult affair, absent the “you lie” shouts and the whack-a-mole quality, where members popped up and down on cue to register approval or disapproval of the president’s remarks.

Second, we ask for a smack talk ceasefire. For 24 hours leading up to the State of the Union, we ask that members of Congress, the president, candidates, and super-PACs speak only about the merits of their ideas — not the demerits of the opposing party’s ideas.

We’re not saying that parties and politicians shouldn’t disagree. We merely ask that for one day out of 366, this disagreement be voiced solely by making the positive case for one’s own ideas.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans have a monopoly on the best ideas. For a day, instead of concentrating on the best attack line – let’s listen to the other side’s case. It may make for fewer fireworks on cable broadcasts, but it will likely ensure a more informed electorate.

Third, we suggest that the House and Senate each reserve one weekend every year where members of Congress and their families spend time together and get to know one another. In 1787, Americans with great regional differences and viewpoints gathered for four months and created a blueprint for the nation. Congress ought to emulate this common love of nation to come together as fellow citizens and form the personal bonds necessary to cooperate with those of other viewpoints.

A retreat won’t make disagreements melt away, but it’s harder to vilify and objectify those you know. Our legislative process could only become better as we learn more, and listen more attentively, to those we have chosen to spar.

The United States faces immense challenges. Our budget deficit is huge. Our economy is sputtering. Our competitors are gaining on us. Our middle class is shrinking. Our entitlements are growing. Our tax code is failing. It is hard to imagine a group of bickering strangers solving America’s most pressing problems.

For the past several decades, the rancor and partisanship in Washington seems to get worse as the need for our government to function better increases. In the meantime, Americans ‘views of Congress hit new lows.

Our modest proposal: Sit together, not apart. Talk to each other, don’t yell. Know each other, don’t be strangers.

Jon Cowan is president and Jim Kessler is senior vice president of Third Way. other, don’t be strangers.

“Why Sputnik?”

January 27th, 2011


“This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” President Obama declared in his State of the Union speech Tuesday evening. Interesting metaphor. I was around for the launching of Sputnik in 1957. He wasn’t. Sputnik created a huge wave of shock and paranoia in the United States. The Soviets were beating us! We were losing the Space Race! And maybe the Cold War.

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