WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama's State of the Union address represented a study in scaled-down ambition.
A man who entered the White House yearning for sweeping achievements finds himself five years later threatening an end run around Capitol Hill gridlock by using executive orders, essentially acknowledging both the limits of his ability to push an agenda through Congress and the likelihood that future accomplishments would be narrow. He urged Republicans to join him in a "year of action," but signaled strongly that he would act unilaterally when bipartisan agreement remained out of reach.
Executive orders such as the one he will employ to raise the minimum wage paid by federal contractors may be the only route available to the president, given deep hostility from the House Republican majority and a Congress increasingly focused on the 2014 elections rather than Barack Obama's legacy.
But with some notable exceptions, only so much can be delivered through the president's pen if he is not using it to sign legislation. He cannot raise the minimum wage for most workers, overhaul the Social Security system, grant legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, reorder spending and taxes or even make necessary fixes to the health care law.
Illustrating how challenging it is to use executive orders in an expansive way, the White House refused to say how many workers might gain under the new wage policy, and Republicans, while criticizing the move, played down its impact.
At the same time, anyone who succeeds him can use the same stroke of a pen to undo Mr. Obama's actions, just as Mr. Obama did to some Bush administration policies one day after his inauguration in 2009.
When it comes to Congress, the formula for success in dealing with a balky opposition continues to elude the White House, except perhaps for a new opening with Republicans on immigration.
Despite the modest budget and spending deal completed this month, Congress seems more of a legislative graveyard than ever. Lawmakers cannot find a way to extend emergency jobless benefits, even when leaders of both parties acknowledge that the aid should and could be approved. If Congress cannot move on economic and social policy that Democrats and Republicans essentially embrace -- and that would be a political victory for both parties -- how can real disagreement be bridged?
Finding consensus only gets harder from here. The midterms are already taking over the Capitol Hill conversation, intensifying scrutiny on every vote and making lawmakers even more reluctant to take chances.
Republicans say they see the president's focus on executive action as abandoning efforts to work with them. The approach will feed the conservative narrative that Mr. Obama is engaged in a power grab and is ignoring constitutional limits. They point for validation to the so-far-successful legal challenge to his use of recess appointments in a case now before the Supreme Court.
"We're going to watch very closely because there's a Constitution that we all take an oath to, including him, and following that Constitution is the basis for our republic, and we shouldn't put that in jeopardy," House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said hours before the president's address Tuesday.
Mr. Boehner said House Republicans would use a party retreat that starts today to examine their options when it comes to the president's use of executive authority.
Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., conceded that governance by executive order is not ideal, but that it was justifiable given the depth of GOP opposition.