"Unfinished business" on Obama's pre-State of the Union agenda

Top White House officials said Tuesday President Obama will focus on “unfinished business” from 2013 and introduce new NSA surveillance techniques before his Jan. 28 State of the Union address to Congress, viewed by the White House as the kickoff to a midterm election year when Mr. Obama’s political clout hangs in the balance.

In a meeting with reporters, officials spoke on background and not for direct attribution, a formulation the White House asserted allowed for more candor.

   The aides said unfinished business included confirmation of Janet Yellen on Monday as the new chair of the Federal Reserve, Tuesday’s vote to break a Republican-led filibuster on emergency long-term unemployment benefits and a pending confirmation of Robert Wilkins to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.  

The new business before the State of the Union address will be a major address on reforms to National Security Agency counter-terrorism surveillance tactics. The date of Mr. Obama’s speech was not revealed, but no action will occur this week. Aides said Mr. Obama met extensively with members of his NSA review panel before leaving for his Hawaiian vacation. While in Hawaii, Mr. Obama studied the panel’s 352-page report and has since contacted top counter-terrorism officials, privacy advocates and top lawmakers.

Mr. Obama will meet Thursday with Sen. Patrick Leahy, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Intelligence Committee, as well as lawmakers critical of current NSA practices – among them Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.

The officials also said Mr. Obama has been pleased with current enrollment numbers for the Affordable Care Act, though no one would say the administration had turned the corner on the Obamacare story. Implementation challenges remain and officials said they still don’t have data on the demographic mix of health insurance enrollees.

As for the State of Union address, Mr. Obama intends to repeat his push for immigration reform, a higher federal minimum wage and announce additional efforts to boost manufacturing jobs and economic growth. The officials said Mr. Obama remains optimistic House Republicans will pass immigration reform that eventually leads to a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented workers. Mr. Obama’s priority is not to hector the GOP, but to give them quiet encouragement to move immigration legislation in pieces through the House with the goal of merging those bills with a comprehensive Senate-passed reform bill.

The officials also predicted no difficulties in winning GOP approval of an increase in the current debt ceiling of $17.2 trillion. The Treasury Department has said the nation will reach its debt ceiling in late February or early March.  

Lastly, the officials said Mr. Obama will not measure success strictly on the basis of what bills Congress sends to his desk for signature. Mr. Obama will step up the use of executive action to battle climate change and job creation, bypassing Congress when it refuses to act.