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Obama becomes the incremental president

Rick Newman
Daily Ticker

Nice speech. What else ya got?

President Obama generally earned high marks for a spirited State of the Union address, yet even those Americans who watched the speech will forget about it before long. The real question following big political speeches is what will last once the political glow has faded.

Obama, of course, insists he’ll go it alone if Congress doesn’t support his legislative proposals, using executive authority to do what he can. Since there’s hardly an outbreak of bipartisanship in Washington, that suggests the remainder of the year—and perhaps the rest of Obama’s second term—will be characterized by small-ball initiatives targeted at the margins. Welcome to the incremental presidency.

The smallish moves Obama promised to make in his State of the Union speech include raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 per hour, rolling out a federally backed starter-retirement plan he calls MyRA, and asking CEOs to be more mindful of the long-term unemployed when hiring.

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The catcalls began even before Obama started to speak, since aides had leaked the gist of his remarks and Obama’s go-it-alone strategy. Obama’s new approach represents “a study in scaled-down ambition,” said the New York Times. “Only so much can be delivered through the president’s pen if he’s not using it to sign legislation."

That may be true, but it’s worth considering whether an incremental approach to important economic issues might not be the best way forward in a hostile political climate characterized by deep distrust of the government. Political pundits tend to believe that if Washington isn’t passing huge, transformative bills, then something is broken. Yet polls show that actual voters are ambivalent, at best, about activist government, with many feeling it may be time for Washington to back out of the nation’s business.

Incremental policies, meanwhile, can be effective. Supporters of a minimum-wage hike would love to see Congress raise pay for low-income workers across the nation, yet more than 20 states, including populous ones such as New York and California, already have a minimum wage higher than the national rate of $7.25. Altogether they represent well over half the U.S. population, and several other states are considering a raise regardless of what happens in Washington. Stuff is happening, even if Washington remains gridlocked.

Related: Minimum wage hike: Good policy or good politics?

In some ways, it’s more effective for economic policies to be localized so they can take account of cost-of-living differentials and other factors Washington can’t control. And when states and localities do more to govern themselves, there tends to be less resentment toward federal overlords in Washington.

Other executive actions Obama takes could turn out to be impotent without the more muscular implementation—not to mention funding—that comes with Congressional legislation. Yet after six years of extraordinary intervention in the economy--dating to stimulus plans first enacted under George W. Bush in 2008--the private sector would welcome a pause in government activism. The next couple of years are shaping up as the strongest period of growth since 2006. The housing market has finally shaken off a grueling comedown. Companies aren’t hiring aggressively, but their hiring is legitimate in the sense that it’s not artificially inflated by temporary Washington incentives.

The next 10 months will be dominated by preparations for the 2014 midterm elections anyway, which is what Obama’s speech was mostly about. Once it’s clear whether the balance of power in Congress will change or stay the same, we might hear bigger ideas from a president hoping to finish his presidency strong. Whatever happens, a year of incrementalism might turn out to be good practice for what comes next.

Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.

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