WASHINGTON – In Statuary Hall, a classical Roman-style room with marble statues of famous American leaders, three Colorado lawmakers gathered after President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. They had come to broadcast their reaction to the speech to reporters, and their responses to Obama’s warnings that he would bypass Congress if necessary illustrated the different political situations each lawmaker finds himself in.
For Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Yuma) Obama’s warnings underlined the president’s lack of credibility and his lethargy.
“In the very first breath, he wants to work with Congress. In the next, he doesn’t. I think the speech lacked conviction. It had no bold policy ideas,” Gardner said in an interview.
For Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) Obama’s vows were necessary to remind an obstreperous Congress that Obama intends to help ordinary Americans.
“Like any CEO of a corporation or a nonprofit, he has a board of directors he consults with. The President has a whole set of powers, and I’m glad he puts federal powers at the disposal of the American people,” Udall said in an interview.
For Rep. Jared Polis (D-Boulder) Obama’s warnings had no special significance.
“Well, it’s part of his office: he signs bills and the Congress has the power of the purse and to pass bills,” Polis said in an interview.
President Obama did not take long to promise that he would resort to executive action if necessary to help ordinary Americans, several of who sat in the House galleries watching the speech.
“So wherever or whenever I can take steps without legislative action to expand opportunities for American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” Obama said minutes into his 65-minute address.
Obama threatened and warned lawmakers he would take unilateral maneuvers on raising the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour, limit the amount of carbon emissions that power plants release, and attempt to reduce gun violence.
For Obama, working around Congress has one political benefit: Few Americans approve of the job it is doing. According to the RealClearPolitics, less than 13 percent of those polled have a favorable opinion, while 80 percent have an unfavorable opinion.
On the other hand, the Supreme Court has taken a dim view of Obama’s attempt to bypass Congress on appointments to the executive branch during legislative recesses. Earlier this month, justices on the high court sounded skeptical about the administration’s claims that it can temporarily fill positions to high-level executive posts when the Senate is not in session.
But Obama’s words about the necessity of executive-branch contradicted those of six and seven years ago when he was a presidential candidate and vowed to diffuse power in Washington.
“I take the Constitution very seriously. The biggest problem we’re facing right now has to do with George Bush bringing more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all, and that’s what I intend to reverse when I’m president of the United States,” candidate Obama said in March 2008.
Conservative bloggers and writers have seized on the contradiction, but Gardner, Udall, and Polis did not. Their reactions to Obama’s assertions of executive-branch power highlighted their individual circumstances.
Gardner’s criticisms of Obama’s credibility reflect that of a lawmaker courting not only members of his party but also independents. Last Spring, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said Gardner’s smarts and social skills would make him a “great” Speaker of the House of Representatives one day.
Udall’s defense of Obama’s warnings reflect that of an embattled incumbent wanting both to avoid alienating members of his party and reach out to moderates.
Before Udall dodged a CNN reporter’s question about whether he would invite Obama to campaign for his re-election bid this year, Udall could be overheard telling the reporter that Obama’s allusions to the Affordable Care Act in the address were “just the light touch.”
Polis’ shrug of the shoulders at Obama’s vows reflect that of a lawmaker seeking to climb up the ladder of the congressional Democratic leadership. Polis has been a passionate advocate for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, an issue that unites key members of the Democratic coalition such as unions, college-educated whites, and Hispanics.