Analysis: Obama’s agenda more bite-sized than bold

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The president’s State of the Union address Tuesday was an amalgam of modest proposals designed to chip away at some of the same problems he’s been working on all along: persistent unemployment, middle-class insecurity, lagging schools and more.

“Let’s make this a year of action,” Obama exhorted members of Congress arrayed before him. “That’s what most Americans want — for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations.

But coming off a year in which his major legislative proposals largely fell flat, Obama already was putting Plan B in play, too.

Where Congress won’t cooperate, Obama aims to find creative ways to act more frequently on his own, through executive orders, regulatory action, presidential cajoling and the like.

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“Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” he declared

There is plenty Obama can do on his own. But creativity is no substitute for clout.

And an executive order on job training, wages or retirement security doesn’t have the zing of an $800 billion stimulus plan or a historic overhaul of the health care system.

Obama isn’t closing off further congressional action: He renewed his calls for legislation on immigration reform, extending unemployment benefits, boosting the minimum wage for all workers and bolstering preschool programs. And he added new items to his congressional wish list, including a call to expand the earned income tax credit to workers without children.

But Obama knows congressional Republicans are even less likely to cooperate this year than they were in 2013, which has largely been written off as a lost year. And that knowledge is giving him a new sense of urgency.

The White House announced Obama’s first new unilateral action — raising the minimum wage for newly hired federal contract workers — even before he began speaking.

It quickly drew derision from Republicans. House Speaker John Boehner stressed that the change would affect only new contracts and predicted the number of workers affected would be “somewhere close to zero.”

Still, small steps may be a better fit for these times than grand legislative proposals that would likely stall.

The economy is better, even if not everyone’s feeling it yet. The unemployment rate is lower, even if 6.7 percent still isn’t great. The health care law is taking effect, even if it’s causing heartburn for plenty of Americans.

The president had a fine line to walk in his speech: projecting the optimism and energy that dispirited members of his party, and the public at large, are hungry for without overpromising at a time when his influence is sure to wane.

“This can be a breakthrough year for America,” he declared.

Obama tempered that optimistic assessment with an open question to lawmakers: “The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress.”

With Congress unlikely to deal on most issues, Obama must keep expectations low, without putting people into a funk.

If they’re not already there, that is.

Polls show people are pessimistic about the country’s direction and the condition of the economy. Seventy percent think unemployment will stay the same or get worse in the next year.

As for Obama himself, “both his supporters and his opponents are worried that he has lost his enthusiasm and his energy for the political contest,” said Calvin Jillson, a presidential scholar at Southern Methodist University.

Jillson pointed to Obama’s own comments in a recent interview that he’s “overexposed” and that it’s natural for people to want something new “after six, seven years of me being on the national stage.”

But Obama insists that with three more years in the Oval Office, he’s still passionate about the issues that matter.

In his speech, he sketched a vision of an America where “honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us.”

The speech was an opportunity to try to restore the public’s confidence in that vision of America — in a pragmatic, bite-sized kind of way.

FACT CHECK: Modest ideas from Obama, dressed up to sound grand

WASHINGTON (AP) — It seems to be something of an occupational hazard for President Barack Obama: When he talks about his health care law, he’s bound to hit a fact bump sooner or later.

So it went Tuesday night, when he declared Medicare premiums have stayed flat thanks to the law, when they’ve gone up. As for an even bigger theme of his State of the Union address, the president’s assertion that “upward mobility has stalled” in America runs contrary to recent research, while other findings support him.

A look at some of the facts and political circumstances behind his claims, along with a glance at the Republican response to his speech:

OBAMA: “Because of this (health care) law, no American can ever again be dropped or denied coverage for a preexisting condition like asthma, back pain or cancer. No woman can ever be charged more just because she’s a woman. And we did all this while adding years to Medicare’s finances, keeping Medicare premiums flat, and lowering prescription costs for millions of seniors.”

THE FACTS: He’s right that insurers can no longer turn people down because of medical problems, and they can’t charge higher premiums to women because of their sex. The law also lowered costs for seniors with high prescription drug bills. But Medicare’s monthly premium for outpatient care has gone up in recent years.

Although the basic premium remained the same this year at $104.90, it increased by $5 a month in 2013, up from $99.90 in 2012. Obama’s health care law also raised Medicare premiums for upper-income beneficiaries, and both the president and Republicans have proposed to expand that.

Finally, the degree to which the health care law improved Medicare finances is hotly debated. On paper, the program’s giant trust fund for inpatient care gained more than a decade of solvency because of cuts to service providers required under the health law. But in practice those savings cannot simultaneously be used to expand coverage for the uninsured and shore up Medicare.

???OBAMA: “Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.”

THE FACTS: The most recent evidence suggests that mobility hasn’t worsened. A team of economists led by Harvard’s Raj Chetty released a study last week that found the United States isn’t any less socially mobile than it was in the 1970s. Looking at children born between 1971 and 1993, the economists found that the odds of a child born in the poorest 20 percent of families making it into the top 20 percent hasn’t changed.

“We find that children entering the labor market today have the same chances of moving up in the income distribution (relative to their parents) as children born in the 1970s,” the authors said.

Still, other research has found that the United States isn’t as mobile a society as most Americans would like to believe. In a study of 22 countries, economist Miles Corak of the University of Ottawa found that the United States ranked 15th in social mobility. Only Italy and Britain among wealthy countries ranked lower. By some measures, children in the United States are as likely to inherit their parents’ economic status as their height.

??OBAMA: “We’ll need Congress to protect more than 3 million jobs by finishing transportation and waterways bills this summer. But I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects, so we can get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible.”

THE FACTS: Cutting rules and regulations doesn’t address what’s holding up most transportation projects, which is lack of money. The federal Highway Trust Fund will run out of money in August without action. To finance infrastructure projects, Obama wants Congress to raise taxes on businesses that keep profits or jobs overseas, but that idea has been a political nonstarter.

The number of projects affected by the administration’s efforts to cut red tape is relatively small, said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a think tank. “The reason most of these projects are delayed is they don’t have enough money. So it’s great that you are expediting the review process, but the review process isn’t the problem. The problem is we don’t have enough money to invest in our infrastructure in the first place.”

???OBAMA: “More than 9 million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage.”

THE FACTS: That’s not to say 9 million more Americans have gained insurance under the law.

The administration says about 6 million people have been determined to be eligible for Medicaid since Oct. 1 and an additional 3 million roughly have signed up for private health insurance through the new markets created by the health care law. That’s where Obama’s number of 9 million comes from. But it’s unclear how many in the Medicaid group were already eligible for the program or renewing existing coverage.

Likewise, it’s not known how many of those who signed up for private coverage were previously insured. A large survey released last week suggests the numbers of uninsured gaining coverage may be smaller. The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that the uninsured rate for U.S. adults dropped by 1.2 percentage points in January, to 16.1 percent. That would translate to roughly 2 million to 3 million newly insured people since the law’s coverage expansion started Jan. 1.

???OBAMA: “In the coming weeks, I will issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour, because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty.”

THE FACTS: This would be a hefty boost in the federal minimum wage, now $7.25, but not many would see it.

Most employees of federal contractors already earn more than $10.10. About 10 percent of those workers, roughly 200,000, might be covered by the higher minimum wage. But there are several wrinkles. The increase would not take effect until 2015 at the earliest and it doesn’t apply to existing federal contracts, only new ones. Renewed contracts also will be exempt from Obama’s order unless other terms of the agreement change, such as the type of work or number of employees needed.

Obama also said he’ll press Congress to raise the federal minimum wage overall. He tried that last year, seeking a $9 minimum, but Congress didn’t act.

??REP. CATHY McMORRIS RODGERS of Washington, in her prepared Republican response: “Last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one. Too many people are falling further and further behind because, right now, the president’s policies are making people’s lives harder.”

THE FACTS: She leaves out a significant factor in the high number of people who aren’t looking for jobs: Baby boomers are retiring.

It’s true that a large part of the still-high unemployment rate is due to jobless workers who have given up looking for a job. There are roughly three people seeking every job opening, a circumstance that can discourage others from trying. But one big reason people aren’t seeking employment is that there are so many boomers — the generation born in the immediate aftermath of World War II — and therefore more than the usual number of retirements.

??Associated Press writers Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Christopher S. Rugaber, Joan Lowy, Sam Hananel and Tom Raum contributed to this report.

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