Obama’s State of the Union challenge: the non-endorsement endorsement

No pressure.
No pressure.
Image: White House Photo/Pete Souza
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Tonight at nine o’clock EST, US president Barack Obama will lay out his governing agenda for the next year, taking advantage of the bully pulpit provided by the State of the Union address to make the case for his preferred policies. But he’ll face a challenge leveraging public opinion simply because adding his name to bipartisan policies causes conservatives to drop their support like a hot potato.

Check out this polling from the Washington Post:

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Obama can mobilize Democrats effectively, but the bigger problem is getting conservatives on board with ideas like a path to citizenship, the proposal at the heart of efforts to fix the United States’ faulty immigration system. That reform seems tantalizingly within reach this year, thanks to Republican support absent from issues like climate change and gun control.

The president’s advisors, under pressure from his party’s leaders in Congress, will try to walk a fine line between offering “leadership”—support for specific policy proposals—and letting legislators come to agreement in such a way that Republicans can distance themselves from a White House that is radioactive among their party’s base. On immigration, Republican Senator Marco Rubio is working as a trusted messenger to bring conservatives on board with an idea they distrust—the path to citizenship—and the White House will be loathe to hurt that effort.

This can be hard. During the health care debate in 2009, senior Republican senator Chuck Grassley told reporters that a mandate for citizens to purchase health insurance was “a bipartisan consensus,” indeed, part of a long-standing series of conservative health care proposals. That policy became central to Obama’s health care overhaul. The next year, Grassley said he considered it “unconstitutional,” and the mandate was a key talking point in Republican opposition to the bill, eventually enacted on a party-line vote. Unfortunately, most legislation can’t pass the Senate with Democratic votes alone, so Obama will need to couch his positions in ways that will make his hunt for Republican support easier.

So if you’re reading the tea leaves tonight and are disappointed if Obama doesn’t strongly endorse your favorite policy, remember that he might be doing you a favor.

More State of the Union notes: