Obama tests his sway against a Republican-run Congress

Published 10:14 am Monday, January 5, 2015

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama this week will test whether he still has the sway to keep Washington focused on his own priorities, even as a new Republican-run Congress descends on the Capitol eager to take him on.

Fresh off a two-week vacation, Obama immediately began ramping up for his State of the Union address — his best chance to set the agenda for 2015 on his own terms. Obama will roll out new executive steps and proposals for Congress this week on home ownership, higher education and manufacturing jobs — a similar menu to the one Obama has offered in years past.

Republicans have an entirely different blueprint for the start of the year. In full control of Congress for the first time of Obama’s presidency, they planned an all-out offensive against his policies on immigration, foreign policy and the environment.

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In a sign of their divergent paths, just as lawmakers arrive in Washington to start the new Congress this week, Obama was heading out of town. He planned to spend most of the week in Michigan, Arizona and Tennessee showcasing how his own economic policies are fueling the economic recovery.

The State of the Union comes early this year, on Jan. 20, and it is Obama’s first with Republicans in control of both House and Senate.

Obama’s speechwriters have been crafting the speech for weeks, both in Washington and in Hawaii, where the president spent two weeks on the golf courses and beaches of Oahu with his family and a handful of friends. The White House has been also been reaching out to Democratic-aligned policy groups to solicit input on the speech.

In Detroit on Wednesday, Obama planned to tout the return of manufacturing jobs and his decision to bail out the auto industry. In Phoenix the next day, Obama was to showcase gains in the housing sector since the real estate crash and unveil new steps to help Americans buy a home, the White House said. And on Friday, Vice President Joe Biden will join Obama in Tennessee to discuss new ways to help more people attend college or get job-training.

As Obama closed out 2014, he was visibly energized by a string of high-profile presidential moves in the last six weeks of the year. Following brutal midterm losses for Democrats, Obama’s actions on Cuba and immigration suggested he still retained some relevance, and Obama said he intended to carry that momentum into 2015.

Yet since the midterms, the key question has been whether Obama will lean in or away from compromise with Republicans in his final two years.

Of the issues the White House said Obama will emphasize in the coming weeks, none were among the handful of areas that both Democrats and Republicans have cited as ripe for compromise — like trade, tax reform and infrastructure.

Eric Schultz, Obama’s spokesman, said the president this week will announce both executive steps he plans to take and proposals to work with Congress on legislation. Those proposals will focus on ways to help the middle class benefit from the economic recovery, he said.

“There are a number of issues we could make progress on, but the president is clear that he will not let this Congress undo important protections gained — particularly in areas of health care, Wall Street reform and the environment,” Schultz said. Obama has threatened to use his veto pen as needed this year to block GOP attacks.

But Obama will be back from vacation barely 48 hours before the new, Republican-run Congress is seated Tuesday, bringing with it an onslaught of attacks the GOP has been bottling up for years. Without a Democratic majority in the Senate to stop them, Republicans planned to start chipping away at Obama’s past actions on health care, immigration and the environment, to name a few.