President Obama heads to North Carolina Wednesday where he'll give a bit of a preview of the economic themes he'll discuss during his upcoming State of the Union address, set for Jan. 28.identifying income inequality and diminishing opportunity as the major challenges of our time in a December speech.
Wednesday’s speech will focus on ways to boost job creation in the manufacturing sector and he'll announce a new "manufacturing innovation institute" for next generation power electronics, according to the White House, an idea he laid out during last year's State of the Union. The manufacturing sector is an area that has grown since bottoming out in 2010 but still hasn’t replaced all of the jobs lost during the recession. While there have been signs that the economy is picking up, the most recent jobs report showed the unemployment rate dropping to a low of 6.7 percent, though that number is lower because so many people stopped looking for work last month.
The main challenge politically, however, is that Mr. Obama faces an uncooperative Congress. Even the Democratic Senate has seen attempts to pass an extension of emergency unemployment benefits stalled by Republicans who demanded first that any measure be paid for, and then a completely open amendment process. It is a top priority for the administration, and one that won’t be happening any time soon.
The rocky road ahead led the president at a cabinet meeting Monday to declare some measure of independence from Congress this year by using two weapons at his disposal: a pen and a phone.
“We are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we're providing Americans the kind of help that they need. I've got a pen, and I've got a phone. And I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward in helping to make sure our kids are getting the best education possible, making sure that our businesses are getting the kind of support and help they need to grow and advance, to make sure that people are getting the skills that they need to get those jobs that our businesses are creating,” Mr. Obama said.
“I've got a phone that allows me to convene Americans from every walk of life, nonprofits, businesses, the private sector, universities to try to bring more and more Americans together around what I think is a unifying theme: making sure that this is a country where, if you work hard, you can make it,” he added.
Mr. Obama’s spokesman, Jay Carney, elaborated to reporters later in the day that the president “will use every opportunity available to him to move the ball down the field with Congress,” though there is a limit to how much he can accomplish with executive orders alone. Asked what kinds of actions the president could take, Carney said, “the capacity of a president to rally people around a cause, create public-private partnerships when it comes to hiring veterans or investing in education in communities so that you have public sector and private sector partnerships to make sure that folks, young people in those cities and towns and communities are getting the skills they need for the jobs available in their communities.”
But it’s rough going for Mr. Obama these days. His approval rating stands at just 40 percent, according to Gallup’s tracking poll. The Affordable Care Act, his signature legislative accomplishment, is far from the success he had hoped it would be. Congress is pushing back on his efforts at diplomatic engagement with Iran, his former Defense Secretary delivered some harsh public criticism of his foreign policy, and the Supreme Court looks like it might soon invalidate some of the recess appointments he made because they are unconstitutional.
All of this bad luck makes him an unpopular figure with his fellow Democrats facing tough re-elections in 2014. Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., is skipping the speech in her home state entirely, citing the Senate schedule, even though lawmakers in the same party as the president typically accompany him to events in their state or district.
“She's here working on important business,” Carney said, waving off the absence. “We're certainly not looking at a visit designed to highlight the need to continue the progress we've made with advanced manufacturing as an issue of electoral politics.”