WASHINGTON — Before Tuesday's State of the Union, the White House namechecked Republicans in an attempt to show that President Obama's new spending proposals that he'll outline during the speech aren't radical liberalism run amok.
But when the rubber meets the road, the White House doesn't think it needs the Republicans in Congress to move the president's agenda forward. Despite an election that overwhelmingly favored the GOP, the president will mostly wait for the Republicans to come to him — with little expectation of that actually happening in most cases.
That doesn't mean, White House officials say, that the president's 2015 agenda is "dead on arrival," as one aide put it Tuesday. It just means no one at the White House really expects the gridlock in D.C. to break, nor that it has to for progress to go forward. The president is perfectly happy to speak over the heads of Republicans in the chamber to GOP elected leaders in the states, who have been more welcoming of Obama's agenda. Through a combination of state action and executive power, White House aides said the president can make his State of the Union speech into relevant changes for the lives of Americans, despite likely intransigence from the GOP.
Viewers watching the speech will see "a president who is determined to move the country forward," said one White House aide. "If he can do that with the Republicans through Congress that would be great, we would welcome that kind of constructive engagement. We haven't seen that, frankly, in the past six years."
It's something of a different tone from the State of the Union in 2011, which came after Obama's first midterm shellacking at the hands of the GOP. That election ended with Democrats in charge of the Senate, Republicans running the House, and a president who said it was possible to build a bridge between them. Then came the reign of the government shutdown, the 2012 elections, the immigration breakdown, the failure of the Obmacare website, and the rest.
This time, things are different. Obama signaled his intention to stick to his guns with a flurry of veto threats hours before he was scheduled to give the State of the Union address. The month-long rollout of State of the Union "spoilers," as the White House called it — including calls for free community college education and tax hikes on the rich — Republicans on Capitol Hill were not expecting a speech that would lead them to new avenues of compromise.
"It appears they have no idea who won the election," said one senior Republican aide on the Hill. "Which now gives stock to Democrats' complaints that the White House slept through the midterms."
No matter what the White House says, though, there's one issue — besides the traditional spending bills — where the administration will definitely require Republican cooperation: authorization of military action in Iraq and Syria.
Domestically, though, in a preview of the address at the White House, the aides told reporters that the success in raising the minimum wage in many red states as well as Republican governors interested in some of the president's early childhood education agenda shows the path around the Congress Obama is happy to walk. The free community college scheme was modeled, aides said, on a similar program in Tennessee, which they acknowledged Tennessee's Republican leaders say they don't want to see turned into a federal mandate.
"Maybe they didn't get the memo, the president is not able to run again in 2016. That's not what he's focused on. Why would he be focused on an election he's not in?" a White House aide said of Republicans declaring Obama's 2015 agenda a "nonstarter" in recent interviews. "The point is that we're going to make progress in any way we can."