President Obama has a pen and a phone, but how much power? Photographer: Larry Downing/Pool via Bloomberg
President Obama has a pen and a phone, but how much power? Photographer: Larry Downing/Pool via Bloomberg

President Barack Obama signaled that his State of the Union address would be a speech of lowered visions weeks ago, when he said that he could still effect change because "I've got a pen and I've got a phone."

The pen referred to executive orders, which, even under a president with such an expansive view of his own authority, have pretty tight limits on what they can accomplish. The phone referred to his power to call people and ask them to do things.

In this case, at least, the president fulfilled his pledge. The speech promised plenty of pen-and-phone action. Those few federal contractors making the minimum wage will see a raise by his order, assuming his order survives a court challenge. And he will call big employers and suggest that they hire the long-term unemployed.

Obama once taunted the Clintons for their smallness of vision in the White House, but a good many of his proposals made the school uniforms and V-chips of Bill Clinton's State of the Union addresses look bold by comparison.

When Obama did call for legislation, he did so perfunctorily. He asked for unspecified action against gun violence, for example, and he called again for closing the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay and passing the Paycheck Fairness Act, which have just as much chance of getting through Congress.

Obama has never shown himself able to work with a legislature that isn't under the overwhelming control of his allies. He can't make Republicans pay a price for disagreeing with him because most Americans don't approve of the job he's doing or of the health-care law that is his biggest legislative accomplishment.

That is Obama's political predicament, and the predicament of several red-state Democratic senators as well. It's a predicament from which the State of the Union address will do nothing to deliver them.

(Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at the National Review.)

To contact the writer of this post:
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net.

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Timothy Lavin at +1-212-205-0364 or tlavin1@bloomberg.net.