Doyle McManus: Obama wise to present less-is-more agenda

02/15/2013 12:00 AM

02/14/2013 5:29 PM

President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday, the first of his second term, won’t be long remembered. It didn’t offer much in the way of new ideas. It was short on memorable lines – except, perhaps, his demand for congressional action on gun control because Gabby Giffords and the families of Newtown, Conn., “deserve a vote.”

But those are all good things. They tell us that after four years in the White House and a hard-won re-election, Obama has recalibrated his ambitions to match the moment. A soaring speech full of ambitious new goals wouldn’t make sense in the Washington, D.C., of 2013. Obama still faces a hostile Republican majority in the House and a forbidding deficit that limits the amount of money he can spend.

He’s already proposed two big agenda items for his second term: immigration reform and gun control. If the president makes real headway on them, and keeps the economy from stalling, his next two years at least will look like a success.

The main theme of the speech was jobs. (He’s for them.) But his economic proposals were relatively modest, and mostly recycled.

It may have sounded as if Obama was calling for a massive array of new federal initiatives, but on closer inspection, they are mostly micro-initiatives.

He promised limited executive actions to reduce greenhouse gases, not the far-reaching legislation he once sought to stem climate change. He called for a new infrastructure funding plan, but it was a downsized version of one he proposed in 2011.

Other ideas came with an even longer pedigree. The proposal to increase the minimum wage to $9? Downsized from the $9.50 proposal of the 2008 campaign. Universal preschool, without a mention of how it would be funded? Again, the 2008 campaign.

As one of the president’s aides told me: They were good ideas before; they’re good ideas now.

Especially the ones about jobs. “A growing economy that creates good middle-class jobs – that must be the North Star that guides our efforts,” Obama said.

Fair enough. But both parties see the same North Star; the problem is they insist on taking different paths to pursue it.

Obama didn’t solve that problem Tuesday. He exhorted Republicans (for the umpteenth time) to adopt his solution to the impending crisis over automatic spending cuts: closing tax loopholes that benefit “the well-off and well-connected.” In return, he offered to support modest reforms in Medicare, an offer he also has made before.

And, significantly, he contended that a modest amount of deficit reduction is all we need. In 2011 and 2012, the president spent weeks trying to strike an ambitious multitrillion-dollar “grand bargain” over taxes and spending with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. But on Tuesday, Obama whittled that down: another $1.5 trillion and we’re done.

Second terms are often disastrous, and they sometimes fall afoul of a president’s conviction that re-election gave him a mandate to do big things.

Obama has set more realistic targets. If he meets the most significant of them – immigration reform, even modest steps on gun control, an end to the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, a free-trade agreement with Europe and, oh, yes, implementation of Obamacare – and manages to keep the economy growing, even if slowly, that’s not a bad list. Plenty of two-term presidents have done worse.

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