State of the Union speech: Did Obama give up on Congress? Not exactly.

In the State of the Union address, President Obama called 2014 a 'year of action.' But he made clear he wants Congress to be part of the action. If not, he will act alone, though in limited ways.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Vice President Joe Biden shakes hands with President Obama after the president's State of the Union address on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. While the president laid out unilateral moves he was prepared to take to help Americans become more upwardly mobile, he left open the possibility of working with Congress on major initiatives, such as immigration and tax reform.

In his fifth State of the Union address, President Obama declared that 2014 would be a “year of action” and that if Congress wasn’t willing to work with him, he was prepared to act on his own.

Partisans immediately took to their corners, with Republicans crying “imperial president” and Democrats applauding his “leadership.”

Since becoming president, Mr. Obama has already amply demonstrated his willingness to go around Congress and use executive power to advance his agenda – on gay rights, in protecting young illegal immigrants from deportation, in curbing greenhouse gases.

And on Tuesday, Obama took more unilateral steps, mostly aimed at helping working Americans become more upwardly mobile. He announced a new type of government savings bond, called the MyRA, to help Americans save for retirement. He asked Vice President Joe Biden to lead a reform of training programs to help workers gain skills. He promised to “cut red tape” to spur construction of factories that use natural gas. Earlier in the day, the White House announced the president would sign an executive order raising the minimum wage to $10.10 for low-wage workers on new federal contracts.

But these were all relatively small-bore initiatives, reminiscent of the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who retreated to midnight basketball and school uniforms when faced with a balky Congress.

The test of Obama’s intentions lies ahead. And in delivering a speech that was largely devoid of red-meat rhetoric, the president left open the possibility of working with Republicans in Congress on major initiatives, such as immigration and tax reform.

“As president, I’m committed to making Washington work better and rebuilding the trust of the people who sent us here,” he said. “I believe most of you are, too.”

In fact, his call to make 2014 a “year of action” was framed not as a year of go-it-alone executive action, but as a year of collaboration with Congress.

“In the coming months, let's see where else we can make progress together,” Obama said. “Let's make this a year of action. That's what most Americans want – for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.”

He offered what he called practical proposals to speed economic growth, strengthen the middle class, and build “ladders of opportunity” into the middle class. And only then, after extending an olive branch, did he come forward with the “or else.”

“I’m eager to work with all of you” to accomplish those goals, he said. “But America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do.”

The reality of executive authority is that there are limits, and Obama knows that. Last November, when confronted by a heckler who demanded that he halt all deportations, the president’s off-the-cuff response sounded definitive.

"We've got this Constitution, we've got this whole thing about separation of powers," Obama said. "So there is no shortcut to politics, and there's no shortcut to democracy."

The question, still, is where Obama sees the line between what he can do on his own and where he needs Congress. He will not raise the federal minimum wage on his own, he has made clear. His decision to raise the minimum wage for federal contract workers – an action that ultimately will affect a few hundred thousand workers – was aimed at spurring Congress to act on behalf of workers across the board, administration officials say.

Still, to critics, even that limited move was beyond the pale. In an interview with CNN, conservative Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa called Obama’s executive order on the minimum wage for contractors a “constitutional violation.”

Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a more moderate Republican, also expressed concern about the idea of a “do it yourself presidency.”

“I think it is contrary to the constitutional system and checks and balances that we have,” Senator Collins said. “The fact is: The president has to deal with Congress whether he’s happy with us or not.”

"The devil is in the details,” she continued, when asked about seemingly benign actions like cutting red tape. “But issuing executive orders that go beyond the law or making recess appointments, which he’s done to circumvent the Senate’s power to confirm, are actions that cause me a lot of concern."

In 2012, Obama pushed the envelope on recess appointments by appointing three people to the National Labor Relations Board when the Senate was technically still in session. The Supreme Court heard argument on the case on Jan. 13, and Obama could well lose. But whatever happens, the case presents an example of checks and balances in action.

Democrats in Congress applauded Obama’s willingness to act alone when Congress won’t work with him.

“He was saying in effect that he's prepared to lead, that's he prepared to be a headlight and not a taillight,” said Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia.

The emotional high point of the 65-minute speech came toward the end, when he recognized a severely injured Army Ranger named Cory Remsburg, who sat in the gallery next to first lady Michelle Obama.

“Like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sgt. 1st Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit,” Obama said.

In a show of bipartisan unity, those gathered in the House chamber stood together, offering extended applause to the young man who has fought hard over the years to regain his mobility and speech after nearly dying in Afghanistan – a war that is winding down for Americans after 12 years, as Obama noted.

In the main, Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address was a tame affair. There were no intemperate comments, either from members of Congress or from the president himself, as have both happened in past Obama SOTUs. To some of Obama’s most liberal supporters, it was too tame.

Environmentalists, for example, were disappointed that the president continues to pursue an “all of the above” energy strategy.

“If you want to bend history in one direction, you need to pick a side and put your all into it,” said Phil Radford, executive director of Greenpeace, in a statement. “Unfortunately, the president continues to stand right in the middle."

William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar and former Clinton White House policy adviser, counted 20 executive actions in the president’s address. But the president did not come across as an aggressive practitioner of unilateral executive power.

“Contrary to the predictions of many pundits, Mr. Obama’s State of the Union address was decidedly traditional in tone and substance,” Mr. Galston wrote in an analysis.

“The president is betting that a steady-as-you-go strategy with modest incremental adjustments will be enough to restore rising wages and opportunity for all,” Galston added. “In the judgment of the American people, the results of this strategy so far have been far from adequate.  If the rest of the world cooperates, the next few years may be better.  If not, the calls for more far-reaching changes will intensify. “

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report. 

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