WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address on Tuesday night to try to push past the fiscal battles that plagued his first term - and still threaten his second - as he laid out an agenda he hopes will shape his legacy.
Obama’s overarching message was that other things matter beside the Republicans’ seemingly all-consuming drive for deficit cutting, embodied in a looming showdown just three weeks away over automatic across-the-board spending cuts.
Those other things, he told Congress, include some traditionally liberal causes, like raising the federal minimum wage and pursuing climate initiatives, and some that have gained bipartisan support, such as immigration reform and curbing gun violence.
“Most of us agree that a plan to reduce the deficit must be part of our agenda,” Obama said. “But let’s be clear: deficit reduction alone is not an economic plan.”
But with Washington so deeply divided, Obama’s speech appeared unlikely to go far in helping the Democratic president and his Republican opponents find common ground to ease the ideological gridlock. He offered no tangible new concessions of his own.
Still, Obama’s sense of urgency and frustration was almost palpable. He alternately scolded and cajoled lawmakers while expanding on his vision for a more activist government so loathed by conservatives, the same theme he struck in his second inauguration address on January 21.
“The American people don’t expect government to solve every problem. They don’t expect those of us in this chamber to agree on every issue. But they do expect us to put the nation’s interests before party,” he said, pressing Republicans to resolve budget and fiscal differences without drama.
Obama - whose first-term promise to become a transformational, post-partisan president failed to materialize in part because of struggles over the deficit - knows the clock is ticking.
The consensus among Washington insiders is that he has a limited window, possibly as little as a year and a half, to take advantage of the Republicans’ post-election disarray and push through his congressional priorities before being reduced to lame-duck status.
Just three weeks after staking out a decidedly liberal philosophy at his inauguration, Obama used his State of the Union address to start fleshing out and prioritizing his goals for the rest of his presidency.
He made clear that job creation and bolstering the middle class would top the list, but he also gave due attention to immigration reform and gun control, which have moved to the forefront at the start of his second term.
Obama’s renewed emphasis on pocketbook issues that dominated the 2012 campaign appears to reflect the view that advancing other legacy-shaping initiatives could hinge on how he fares with unfinished economic business from his first four years.
Many of the economic plans he presented in his State of the Union address were familiar to listeners as proposals that Republicans have blocked before, including new investment in modernizing infrastructure, boosting manufacturing, creating construction jobs and helping to ease homeowners’ mortgage woes.
There is ample reason to doubt that these ideas - even in repackaged form - will gain much traction in a still-divided Congress where Republicans control the House of Representatives and will oppose almost any new spending Obama proposes.
But the biggest red flags for Republicans may be Obama’s call for a hike in the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, a traditional liberal idea, and his demand that Congress pursue a “market-based solution” to climate change - with a warning that if lawmakers do not act soon, “I will.”
Obama’s call for a nationwide program to expand pre-school education for the low-income families - another progressive cause - is also expected to run into Republican opposition.
There is little doubt the president is aware that many of these proposals, especially those with spending attached, may be dead-on-arrival in Congress.
But he may be counting on being able to accuse Republicans of obstructionism in the 2014 midterm elections - as he did with some success in the 2012 campaign - as his Democrats seek to win back the House.
Obama remains at odds with Republicans over budgets and taxes, and his speech offered no new initiatives for resolving those differences even as a March 1 deadline looms for painful across-the-board spending cuts unless a deal is reached. That will be followed on March 27 by a dispute over continued funding of the government.
While challenging Republicans to work with him toward an elusive agreement on deficit reduction and acknowledging the need for “modest reforms” in entitlement programs like Medicare, Obama stuck to his demand for getting rid of tax loopholes for wealthier Americans - something that many Republicans resist.
But he pressed hard for Republicans, whom he has outmaneuvered in recent fiscal showdowns, to act responsibly in the next round.
“The greatest nation on Earth cannot keep conducting its business by drifting from one manufactured crisis to the next,” he said.
But Republicans showed no little sign of giving ground on the so-called “sequester” spending cuts that threaten to cause serious economic damage.
“The president had an opportunity to offer a solution tonight, and he let it slip by,” said Republican House Speaker John Boehner. “We are only weeks away from the devastating consequences of the president’s sequester, and he failed to offer the cuts needed to replace it.”
Despite the entrenched tensions, Obama was less confrontational toward the Republicans than he has been in recent public appearances since winning re-election against Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
But some political analysts warned that Obama faced the risk of policy overreach, a common pitfall of second-term presidents. Former Republican President George W. Bush’s bid to overhaul Social Security ran afoul of public opinion and went nowhere.
“The problem with laying out so many proposals is that it will be perceived as overwhelming, turn people off and some initiatives will simply die on the vine,” said Costas Panagopoulos, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York.
Reporting By Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Fred Barbash and Eric Beech