Obama's Big-Time Small Ball

WASHINGTON –- The polls say that President Barack Obama is at a low point, but you couldn’t tell it from the tour de force of his State of the Union speech.

He was standing at the podium, but seemed to have a spring in his step. His smile was winning; his enthusiasm for America’s future infectious.

Masking the modesty of his proposals in the energy and confidence of his presence, the president launched the pivotal year of his second term with a shrewdly relentless focus on the use of his own power to change policy and convene, shame and inspire other sectors of society.

With the exception of a few minutes on foreign policy –- the core of which was to declare an end of the era of “permanent war” –- Obama zeroed in on proposals to extend the economic recovery to all Americans, not just to Wall Street investors and CEOs.

Some were merely aspirational: “convening” meetings, “hosting” summits. Others were small tweaks in federal policy, sold on the basis that they would inspire or implore the rest of America –- Republicans in Congress or leaders in the private sector –- to go along.

Facing congressional Republicans poised to say “no” on almost every legislative front –- with the possible exception of immigration reform –- the president made a virtue of necessity by promising to use his own executive powers to raise wages, train workers and entice the private and nonprofit sectors to do their part to create jobs, use new technology and lure investors to the U.S.

“America does not stand still and neither will I,” he declared, and with his broad smile and upbeat delivery he sounded convincing.

Obama eschewed sweeping legislative or ideological proposals on big-ticket items such as tax reform, entitlements, trade or social justice.

For the most part, he avoided any invitations to confrontation with his Republican congressional adversaries, other than to almost teasingly warn them away from trying to dismantle Obamacare.

Even where he did confront the GOP, he did so on issues that lack ideological depth.

He insisted that he wanted Congress to raise the minimum wage and extend long-term unemployment benefits. But both ideas have widespread public support and are essentially pragmatic fixes long considered to be part of the American mainstream.

Obama swung for the fences in his first term, and with success: He got reelected. But he whiffed disastrously last year, his administration reeling from spying controversies, congressional confrontations and a botched rollout of Obamacare.

The result is a job-approval rating in the low-40s, the kind that can cripple a presidency by making the chief executive a political pariah.

So, as Obama laid out his 2014 plans in his State of the Union, he committed to what the major leagues call “small ball”: incremental executive branch maneuvers to aid the economy, with the aim of creating jobs and restoring the president’s standing.

In his State of the Union, he was looking to scratch out runs with singles, bunts and walks.

It’s a game plan borne of necessity, a shrewd assessment of the enemies, and the president’s own personal and political character. He is not a man who relishes confrontation.

Facing implacable opposition from Republicans on the Hill, Obama is choosing to go around them where he can. Knowing how unpopular he is among the GOP base, he will shy away from table-pounding pronouncements that would only inflame the other side.

The White House strategy for 2014 is simple enough: ignore Congress (for the most part); be busy, purposeful, detail-oriented and reasonable; and hope that a rising tide of an improving economy will lift all boats -– including the president’s own.

In his State of the Union address, Barack Obama promised to use 32 executive actions and the example-setting and convening powers of his office to drive in economic runs on behalf of working people.

The goal is a politically indispensable one: to slowly but surely pull the president’s job-approval rating out of the dismal -- and debilitating -– low-40 percent muck in which it has been mired since the fall.

The approval rating number is not just a media plaything, though it is that. It matters greatly to members of Congress -– Republicans and Democrats alike -– and to the Democrats’ shaky chances of holding onto their slim majority in the U.S. Senate.

“We had a terrible fall,” a senior administration official told me before the speech. “We had the NSA and the budget confrontations and the botched rollout of the health care website,” he said.

“What we need to do now is put one foot in front of the other and move forward, and let a stronger economy get us back on track.”

The rest of the president’s strategic reasoning has to do with his assessment of his opposition. He thinks that if he plays things cautiously now –- if he avoids giving GOP adversaries a big target -– they will self-destruct.

“You can always count on them to say something stupid,” he has told his aides.

So that was the strategy in the State of the Union: Speak grandly of relatively uncontroversial things, and hope that the GOP overplays its hand.

Small ball, but runs scored.