Two hours before President Obama started delivering the State of the Union, a freshman congressman from Texas did him a favor. Rep. Randy Weber, a conservative who’d narrowly won the Gulf Coast seat vacated by Ron Paul, put his deep thoughts in the form of a tweet.
This went viral, as it was designed to, and as the White House could only hope it would. Senior advisers had promised a speech that would pledge fast action for whenever the Congress inevitably took a pratfall and failed to do anything. The speech lived up to the leaks. “I’m eager to work with all of you,” the president told legislators, “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.”
Spoken like a man with a 44 percent approval rating talking to politicians with a number 30 points closer to zero. It’s been like this ever since John Podesta left the Center for American Progress to join the White House. CAP and other organs on the left are brimming with ideas for extracongressional end runs. Obama’s never stronger than when he’s signing a popular bill, which hasn’t happened in a while, or when Republicans are making exploitable errors, which happens every 20 or minutes or so.
The early leaks of the speech did both tricks. On Monday and Tuesday, finding a Republican who’d denounce Obama’s executive actions—whatever they were—was easier than breathing. “We’re going to watch very closely,” intoned Speaker of the House John Boehner after the conference meeting. “There’s a Constitution that we all take an oath to, including him, and following the Constitution is the basis for House Republicans.”
More resonant warnings followed, from Republicans who had been characterizing all of Obama’s actions—delays to the health care law, EPA rules, deferred action on certain deportations—as petty tyranny. “Dictatorships are often characterized by an abundance of laws,” wrote Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the Wall Street Journal. “When a president can pick and choose which laws to follow and which to ignore, he is no longer a president.”
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul weighed in, too, though his dark cloud concealed a rainbow. “I think it’s disturbing,” he said, “and I think the Supreme Court is going to rebuke him, in the near future, on the idea that he can go around Congress and decide when we’re in session for recess appointments. I hope that that would chasten him, not embolden him.”
A State of the Union isn’t really an occasion for chastening, but the White House didn’t go as far as conservatives feared. The president announced, for the second time in a day, an executive order that would raise the minimum wage for future federal contractors. “I intend to lead by example,” he said. He planned to “direct the Treasury to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings” and “use my authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands.” Twice, he sketched out a reform and said that it would work best “if Congress wants to help.”
That was it, really, but it raised all the expected hackles. South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson, who became famous when he yelped “you lie” during Obama’s 2009 address, left the House chamber shaking his head. “I think it’s just wrong,” he said. “He calls on us to work together, then he threatens to act unilaterally? It just doesn’t fit.”
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who’s retiring at the end of 2014, watched the speech while taking notes on a paper transcript. When a line shocked her, she took off her reading glasses and shook her head. She left the speech raring to pass a bill that would let Congress more easily sue the president when he started firing off executive orders.
“The Congress is going to push back,” she said. “The president has refused to faithfully execute the laws of the United States, which is required under Article II.”
“You want to sue the president?” asked a reporter.
“That’s what the American people are calling on us to do,” said Bachmann. “The president of the United States is announcing ahead of time that he will unilaterally act, pronounce laws, without Congress. He’s changing the economic livelihood of the American people.”
A different sort of worry flowed from the Republicans who actually want to work with the administration. Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who gave the Spanish-language response to the speech, wants an immigration bill to pass this year. “I represent a majority-Hispanic district,” she said. “I’m thinking about freedom for oppressed peoples or immigration—those are my two issues. But when the president takes executive action and changes what we do or don’t do, my Republican colleagues ask, ‘Well, how do we know that what we do on immigration will stay?’ Even though the end result, I like—deferred action on DREAMers, that’s good—but if we could only work through the legislative process first, it would be a better process.”
Would that perspective change at the end of the year? If 2014 ran out and Congress hadn’t passed a bill, would she want the president to wield his pen and extend deferred action to more immigrants? “We’re never going to see it as OK,” she said, “but we’d get the sense—well, he’s trying. He worked through the process. But how many executive actions did he say tonight? We’re just taken aback whenever he says it.”
Not Democrats. They were thrilled. Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, answered a question about the executive actions by ticking through all the failures of the Republican House. California Rep. Mark Takano, one of the progressives who’d pressured the White House to raise the minimum wage for contractors, quoted a Spanish motto he’d just learned: ¡Obama, escucha, estamos en la lucha! “Obama, listen, we’re in the fight!”
“The great thing about executive actions is that you keep on looking for opportunities,” said Takano. “Someone asked me, do I want to see an executive order in regard to LGBT folks. Well, as Scarlett O’Hara said, ‘Tomorrow’s another day.’ ”