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Posted on on January 30th, 2014
by Pincas Jawetz (


The Opinion Pages|Op-Ed Columnist

The Incredible Shrinking Presidency.

It was hard to watch President Obama during Tuesday’s State of the Union address and not see a man who has had his coat trimmed and his ambitions adjusted.

He touted his accomplishments, as he should have, but in laying out the parameters of his “year of action” he outlined goals that didn’t ask America to dream as much as adjust to the paralysis, abandoning big moves for smaller ones.

Republican lawmakers have made clear that they have no desire to work with him and that they have every intention of opposing him, even if that means the legislative branch passes almost no laws. And that’s exactly what they’ve done. In December, Politico put it this way: using “public laws passed” or “bills passed” as the measurement, “the 113th Congress has passed just 58 laws so far, the lowest since 1947.”

So, the president pledged Tuesday that he would work with Congress where he could, but would move forward without Congress if necessary, saying, “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

His plans were noble enough, and they were poll-friendly — raising the minimum wage, working for universal high-quality pre-K, equal pay for women, a new “MyRA” retirement savings plan — but they are not nearly large enough proposals to solve our most intractable problems.

There was only one line devoted to fixing our “upside-down tax code” for individuals, and that was in reference to the retirement account. Gone were the appeals to get Congress to have the wealthy pay their fair share.

Last year, the president put it this way:

“We can’t ask senior citizens and working families to shoulder the entire burden of deficit reduction while asking nothing more from the wealthiest and the most powerful.”

He continued:

“Most Americans — Democrats, Republicans and independents — understand that we can’t just cut our way to prosperity. They know that broad-based economic growth requires a balanced approach to deficit reduction, with spending cuts and revenue, and with everybody doing their fair share.”

Last year, on the issue of new gun control legislation, the president said:

“It has been two months since Newtown. I know this is not the first time this country has debated how to reduce gun violence. But this time is different. Overwhelming majorities of Americans — Americans who believe in the Second Amendment — have come together around common-sense reform, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun.”

This year, he mentioned gun violence only once, saying:

“Citizenship means standing up for the lives that gun violence steals from us each day.”

The only big proposal that even has a chance this year is comprehensive immigration reform, and its prospects are far from certain.

Last year, the president spoke extensively about passing immigration reform, repeating, “Now is the time to do it. Now is the time to get it done. Now is the time to get it done.” He spoke about stronger border security, a pathway to citizenship and decreasing waiting times for highly skilled immigrants.

This year, he spoke of immigration in a single passage, with no specifics other than to cite this: “Independent economists say immigration reform will grow our economy and shrink our deficits by almost $1 trillion in the next two decades.”

The president seems to have been reduced by the resistance. He seems to be concentrating on what can be done rather than on what should be done. This is a rational reaction, I suppose, to irrational opposition, but nonetheless it’s a sad indictment of our politics.

The president has had failures and missteps, to be sure. Every administration has some. None are perfect. But the idea of grinding government to a halt in opposition to one leader — as Republicans have done — has been an extraordinary and infuriating thing to behold.

And it has been sad to watch a president full of hope and promise be stymied at nearly every turn and have to reframe his objectives.

In an article this week in The New Yorker, Obama attempted to give context to his struggles and place his term in the long sweep of history:

“And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

The president who was fond of proclaiming that under his leadership, the country was beginning a “new chapter” on everything from diplomacy to climate change, is now just trying to get his paragraph right.


Recent Comments

Joseph Huben

Obama and the rest of the country have concluded that Congress is broken but things still need to get done. Obama effectively said…


It’s a realistic presidency. It’s no use proposing progressive reform when many red state legislators are bent on returning us to the 19th…


History will not be kind to the Republican party and their obstruction of ALL measures to get us put of the deep recession that was their…


Few bills of real substance emerge from today’s polarized Congress, and those that do tend to be misshapen lumps. They have enough useful provisions to win approval from Democrats, but are weighed down by the dangerous and occasionally bizarre demands of the many branches of the Republican Party.

That’s certainly the case with the $956 billion farm bill that passed the House on Wednesday with bipartisan support.

It seems headed for approval by the Senate and the White House in the next few days. It makes some of the most significant reforms to wasteful agriculture subsidies in many years, and it contains dozens of important provisions designed to increase employment in rural areas and save lives with farsighted crop research. It preserves some important environmental protections, while cutting others. And though its food-stamp provisions were saved from being much worse, they will still reduce benefits for too many poor people.

On balance, the bill is clearly worthy of support, particularly because it will prevent austerity fanatics in future Congresses from gutting food stamps for the next five years. It will save $16.6 billion over a decade, or $23 billion if you count existing budget cuts imposed in the last two years. But endorsing the bill also means acknowledging the low expectations for real progress in Washington.

The most important reform in the bill is the elimination of direct payments to farmers, which provided cash subsidies in good years and bad, whether crop prices were high or low. This program was one of the worst abuses in the federal budget, and negotiators in the House and Senate should be commended for overcoming intense lobbying to preserve it, thereby saving $19 billion over 10 years.

To protect farmers from disaster in bad years, the bill moves $7 billion of that savings into a beefed-up insurance subsidy program, which is a better way of reducing risk. But that program is still too generous to big farmers. As the Environmental Working Group argues, the subsidies should have been means-tested. Reducing the insurance program’s size might have paid for more food stamps.

Negotiators took an important step by linking crop insurance subsidies to requirements that farms meet environmental standards, including soil conservation and wetlands protection. But a few smaller conservation programs were eliminated, and the overall amount spent on conservation was cut by $4 billion.

The bill also pays for research to improve crop yields and reduce plant disease that could have an important effect in developing countries, along with energy-efficiency programs and new manufacturing opportunities in agriculture-related businesses.

The most painful cut in the bill is the $8 billion reduction in food stamps over a decade. The effect of this is limited to 4 percent of recipients, or 850,000 families, who would lose about $90 a month. Most of them live in the 16 states that have taken advantage of a loophole in a utility-assistance program, receiving benefits that Congress did not intend. That loophole should have been closed, but not in such a precipitous way for needy families.

Nonetheless, the bill’s authors rejected the far worse cuts in the original House bill, which would have tossed 3.8 million people from the program. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argues, rejecting the farm bill means rolling the dice that the next Congress will do a better job. In today’s environment, that’s a tough bet.


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