Obama Prepared To Bypass Congress If Needed

When President Obama gives his State of the Union Address, he's likely to hit on familiar themes: expanding opportunity for all Americans, pushing for immigration overhaul and investment in infrastructure. And he's expected to say that if Congress doesn't act, he'll move forward with his own initiatives through executive action. This comes as Congress gave him very little of what he asked for last year.

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When President Obama gives his State of the Union Address tonight, he's likely to hit on some familiar themes: expanding opportunity for all Americans, pushing for immigration changes, and investment in infrastructure. The president is also expected to say that if Congress does not act, he will move forward with his own initiatives through executive action. This comes as Congress gave him very little of what he asked for last year.

NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President...

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: As President Obama stood before Congress last year, it was the start of a new term. It was a time of some optimism, that maybe the election had changed the dynamics that caused legislative gridlock and brought Congress and the country to the edge of crisis so many times.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: And we can say with renewed confidence that the state of our union is stronger.

KEITH: Still, Obama seemed to acknowledge that he may have a hard time getting Congress to go along with his ideas, referencing job creation proposals that got marginal support.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: And I thank the last Congress for passing some of that agenda. I urge this Congress to pass the rest.

KEITH: It didn't happen. In fact, of the 41 things the president asked Congress to do, Congress actually did just two of them last year. That's according to an analysis from political scientists Donna Hoffman and Allison Howard.

DONNA HOFFMAN: Do you want to know the two things he was successful with for 2013?

KEITH: Howard is an assistant professor at Dominican University of California.

ALLISON HOWARD: OK, so it was the Violence Against Women Act that was renewed. And when he asked that the Congress not default on the nation's debt, they didn't.

KEITH: Congress did follow through on a third item, outside of the researcher's data window, by passing a government funding bill earlier this month. Donna Hoffman, an associate professor at the University of Northern Iowa, says it's not uncommon for presidents to struggle to get Congress to do what they ask, especially in divided government.

HOFFMAN: It is not as if a president in giving one of these speeches will say to the Congress: Please do X and the Congress is just going to fall in line and do that.

KEITH: She says Ronald Reagan had a similarly bad year, where just five percent of his requests were honored - and in his case only partially. Over the course of his presidency, Hoffman says Obama's success rate is not that bad.

HOFFMAN: He's right in the middle.

KEITH: Still, listening back to the 2013 speech, it's striking how many times President Obama proposed something that simply went nowhere. Tax reform...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: We can get this done.

KEITH: Upgraded infrastructure...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: We can get this done.

KEITH: Help for struggling homeowners...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: Take a vote and send me that bill.

KEITH: Universal pre-kindergarten.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: That's something we should be able to do.

KEITH: Raising the minimum wage, expanded background checks for gun purchases, even cyber security legislation...

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: This is something we should be able to get done on a bipartisan basis.

KEITH: And then there's something he's asked for in all four State of the Union addresses: comprehensive immigration reform.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

OBAMA: I strongly believe that we should take on once and for all...

I believe as strongly as ever...

And we should continue to work at fixing our broken immigration - once and for all. Tonight, send me...

Send me a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the next few months and I will sign it right away and America will be better for it. Let's get it done.

KEITH: President Obama will ask for that one again tonight and may even signal he's open to compromise. As Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution sees it, the pressure to notch more accomplishments is on, because a narrative is beginning to form about the Obama presidency.

ELAINE KAMARCK: And I think the storyline that's developing on this presidency, for better or for worse, is that this presidency has a hard time getting things done.

KEITH: The White House takes exception with that characterization. The administration points to 14 areas of progress since the last state of the union, many achieved through executive action rather than legislation. So can we expect the president to ask for fewer things from Congress tonight? Probably not.

JAY CARNEY: He'll certainly aim high. Presidents aught to aim high.

KEITH: White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

CARNEY: I don't think any president has ever gone before Congress and said I hope to do this, this, this, and this with you (unintelligible) at the end of the year discover that his list was too short, that everything got done.

KEITH: But Carney says Obama will make it clear he won't be waiting around for Congress to act.

Tamara Keith, NPR News, the White House.

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