President Barack Obama may not be interested in playing golf with Republicans. But he doesn’t mind playing hardball.
Sitting inside the White House several hours before Obama delivered his State of the Union Address to the nation, I listened to a White House senior adviser discuss the president’s vision for moving America forward — with or without the support of Congress.
It was uplifting to hear White House officials characterize the president as a more defiant leader who will push back against a callous Republican-controlled House. Obama, they said, intends to advance his agenda to bridge the wealth divide even if he is forced to sign executive orders to get critical legislation passed.
Simply put, Obama is showing grit.
“The president was never going to come to Washington to strong-arm Republicans to get them to bend to his will,” one senior administration official said, adding that some of the president’s supporters have suggested that Obama invite Republicans out for a round of golf.
“Republicans don’t want to play golf with the president,” the adviser said. “They don’t want to work with the president, and they have told us that in every way possible.”
“The president will not sit around waiting for Congress,” the adviser added. But, “when the president can work with Congress, he will.”
As I focused on Obama’s advisers sharing the president’s thought process for leading the nation, Obama was huddled with speechwriters in the Oval Office putting the final touches on his fifth State of the Union Address.
The president’s critics say Obama still doesn’t fully understand Washington politics, but on Tuesday, White House senior advisers insisted that Obama is not naïve. The president knows Republicans despise him and will block his agenda at every opportunity, but even though Obama’s first instinct is to offer an olive branch to adversaries in hopes of a compromise, he now feels enough is enough.
The president is tired of Republican filibusters; he’s tired of the political barricades; he’s tired of the mess.
Is the president frustrated with the Capitol Hill gridlock? Absolutely.
But what is more frustrating for Obama, his aides contend, is when he reads letters from Americans who share heartbreaking stories about their financial struggles. As Obama reviews the letters in the evenings, he then reflects on his inability to get Congress to act on critical legislation that could help many families in need.
“That’s what gets the president motivated to get up in the morning to get Congress to do the right thing,” one adviser said. “The president believes you should not have to raise a family in poverty.”
I’m delighted that Obama is fired-up, rebellious, and ready, if necessary, to move ahead without blessings from Rep. John Boehner, the House Majority Leader. This is the Obama that many African Americans have been waiting for. Too often I hear Obama’s supporters say they wish the president would get tougher on Republicans and stop trying to court stubborn GOP leaders.
“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,” Obama said during his State of the Union Address Tuesday night. “But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”
“Our job is to reverse these tides,” the president said. “It won’t happen right away, and we won’t agree on everything. But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. 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.”
Moving forward without Congress means the President will use his executive authority to pass the Harkin-Miller bill. The bill would raise the Federal minimum wage for working Americans in stages to $10.10 and index it to inflation thereafter, while also raising the minimum wage for tipped workers for the first time in over 20 years.
Last week, during the nationally-syndicated radio show “Keeping It Real with Rev. Al Sharpton,” where I serve as a co-host, Sharpton asked callers this question: “What would you like to hear from the president during his State of the Union Address?”
Some callers said they wanted Obama to talk about jobs, others said gun control is a serious issues worth discussing. And one caller said she wanted the president to use his bully pulpit to teach African Americans about political empowerment and the political process.
“I’m reaching out to some of America’s leading foundations and corporations on a new initiative to help more young men of color facing tough odds stay on track and reach their full potential,” Obama said Tuesday night.
In the weeks ahead, the president will show his determination and leadership while grappling with a hard-core Republican opposition.
Obama’s core message to the GOP is strong: Get on board – or get out of the way.
(AP Photo: President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Washington.)