One of the highlights of President Obama’s State of the Union speech tonight is his announcement of an executive order raising the minimum wage for those working for contractors doing business with the federal government. The measure is a political trifecta for the president: he gets to bypass Congress, play to the populist grandstand, and inject some life into a moribund presidency with three years left before it officially expires. Tonight’s event and the speaking tour on which the president embarks tomorrow is designed to send the less-than-credible message that he is very much in charge of the government, has the political juice to beat the Republicans while raising his poor favorability ratings, thus reassuring himself, if no one else, that he is no lame duck.
The union that the president will claim tonight is still strong, though it is not a dictatorship. While the commander in chief has the power to make foreign policy and wage war and—thanks to the courts—can impose environmental regulations, the Constitution set up impassable obstacles to prevent a president from ruling without the consent of Congress. The notion that Obama can govern by executive order is just as much an illusion as the idea that imposing higher minimum wages will improve the economy and create more jobs rather than lose them.
But while Obama will garner some partisan applause by unilaterally raising the wages of some workers to $10.10 from $7.25, the impact of this measure is as much trickery as is Obama’s belief that he can govern alone bypassing Congress. The president’s frustration at his inability to get his liberal laundry passed by Congress may be understandable. But freelancing from the Oval Office isn’t the answer to divided government. Good-faith negotiations and deal making—practices to which this aloof president has always disdained—are the answer.
The actual number of workers affected by the wage increase he will impose on federal contractors will be small. But even so, it shows just how great the disconnect between the president’s rhetoric and the reality of job creation has become. Nowhere in the speech or in the campaign-style pep he’ll give later this week is there any specificity about where the money to pay the higher wages will come from or what the government will do to help the workers who may lose their jobs altogether as a result of cutbacks that companies will be forced to endure as a result of this transparent grandstanding.
The point of the president’s entirely disingenuous focus on the minimum wage is to preview the Democrats’ intention to play the populist card this year with their bogus concerns about income inequality. Although the measure polls well, the increase will do more to help middle-class teenagers rather than to help the working poor who understand that minimum-wage positions are intended, to be gateway jobs, not a way to permanently support families. Indeed, most Americans understand that this is, at best, a sideshow intended, like so much else in the liberal repertory, to divert them from the larger issue of a still weak economy.
Five years into the Obama presidency, it is no longer possible for the president to credibly blame, as he has done every previous year, the country’s economic woes on his predecessor. Instead, he will blame Congress, specifically the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, for thwarting his agenda.
But the problem for the president is not just that he has never learned the art of negotiating with Republicans or even with Democrats who disagree with him. His bid to govern unilaterally through executive orders is, after all, nothing new. Even in his first two years, when he had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, he was even more intransigent. He pushed through a health-care bill that vastly expanded the reach and power of the federal government without a single Republican vote and has since persevered in implementing this ObamaCare disaster by choosing to ignore and to suppress any criticisms of this gargantuan error rather than to try to deal with its flaws. Thus, we have already seen Obama’s approach to unilateral governance, and the results are as bad as his critics expected.
Try as they might to change the subject, the negative impact of ObamaCare on the economy and the lives of millions of Americans will remain the single most important domestic issue in 2014. The minimum wage is economic snake oil. But so, too, is the president’s feckless effort to pretend he can magically bypass Congress. Rather than breathe new life into a presidency that has gone seriously off the rails, this stunt will merely confirm that the White House is as helpless to raise the president’s poll numbers as it is to improve the economy. Rhetoric may have won Barack Obama the presidency, but it cannot make up for his inability to govern.