Analysis: Obama barrels into final act of presidency unbowed

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Posted: Jan 20, 2015 10:34 PM
Analysis: Obama barrels into final act of presidency unbowed

WASHINGTON (AP) — Out to rewrite the rules for lame ducks, a combative President Barack Obama is barreling into the final two years of his presidency determined to hold his own and set the terms for dealing with resurgent Republicans.

In his next-to-last State of the Union address, the president rejected any notion that he should be cowed by the midterm election results that gave the GOP a resounding victory. And while Obama spoke stirringly in his speech about the need to find common ground with Republicans, in the 11 weeks since the November elections he's dished out a growing string of veto threats — two of them just before Tuesday's speech — and shown few signs of moving closer to the Republicans on specific policy proposals.

The president promised to put forward ideas that are "practical, not partisan." But his proposals for higher taxes on the wealthy, making community college free for many students, expanding paid leave for workers and more are unlikely to find much Republican support. And he served early notice that if Republicans send him a bill to roll back his administration's gains on health care, Wall Street reforms or immigration, "I will veto it."

Breaking with tradition, the president dispensed with suspense and released the details of his State of the Union proposals well in advance of Tuesday night's speech to a joint session of Congress and millions of television viewers. With TV audiences for the annual speech shrinking, the White House decided to reinvent the State of the Union as weeks-long campaign rather than cede the spotlight for much of January to the Republicans.

The president painted a rosy picture of this moment in time, speaking of "a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry and booming energy production." And he rejected as cynical the view that "there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it."

In the Republican response to Obama's address, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, too, spoke about improving cooperation and ending Washington's hyperpartisanship.

But the two sides seemed to be talking past each other, as their underlings pumped out dueling charts and facts.

And Ernst offered a far different take than Obama on the state of the union, speaking of stagnant wages, lost jobs and "a stale mindset that led to failed policies like Obamacare" and to "political talking points, not serious solutions."

More than once, Obama has burst into a new year with unbounded confidence, only to run smack into the same old Washington gridlock.

In his speech, the president identified tax and spending priorities as a perennial fissure, saying that while both sides might agree on the need to invest more in infrastructure and other needs, "where we too often run onto the rocks is how to pay for these investments."

Ernst, illustrating the same rift, called for "meaningful reforms, not higher taxes like the president has proposed."

The new Senate majority leader, Republican Mitch McConnell, pointedly referred back to the November election results as he sized up the political landscape on Tuesday, saying he hoped the president would adopt a more conciliatory tone than "the path he's been on for so many years."

Asked whether it's possible to put tone aside and still be able to focus on areas ripe for agreement, McConnell said: "That's really a question you ought to ask the president. I think ever since the election he's ... indicated he's not for much of anything the American people voted for last November."

William Galston, a former Clinton administration official, said Obama seems to be working two parallel tracks — a more confrontational path setting the stage for national elections in 2016, and a more conciliatory one aimed at getting things done in 2015.

The latter has been less evident so far, but both sides say they see the potential for compromise on matters like trade, infrastructure and perhaps tax reform.

Says Galston: "The question for 2015 is whether the president and the Republican leaders will be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Will they be able to seal off the areas of guaranteed confrontation from the areas of possible cooperation?"

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EDITORS NOTE: Nancy Benac has covered Washington and politics for more than three decades for The Associated Press.

Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nbenac