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In our opinion: Obama does best when he rallies the nation to unify

By In Our Opinion

For the Deseret News

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 28 2014 8:45 p.m. MST

President Barack Obama delivers the State of Union address before a joint session of Congress in the House chamber Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Washington, as Vice President Joe Biden, and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, applaud.

Larry Downing, Associated Press

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Even for a president who can’t run for another term, a State of the Union address that is given during an election year has significance. President Obama had to hit the right notes Tuesday night in order to help Democrats retain control of the Senate at a time when his own approval ratings have been slipping.

Time will tell whether he succeeded, but his defiant hint at using executive orders will not unify the nation, which ought to be a larger concern.

President Barack Obama’s decision to use an executive order to increase the minimum wage for employees under new federal contracts, and his apparent resolve to resort full-throttle to executive orders on other issues, are troubling. He is signaling to the American people that, on some important issues, he no longer wants to engage in the political heavy lifting that can produce compromises and encourage unity.

The president, however, did a good job of drawing attention to the positive areas of the economy, such as energy production, although it would have been good to hear him give unconditional support to construction of the Keystone Pipeline.

He touched on other areas that ought to resonate with most Americans. The president is right in his concern for immigration reform. His desire to connect community colleges to effective job training is proper and sorely needed. He also was correct to emphasize the need for patent reform and for restoring federal funding for important research.

He also was right to give credit to a bipartisan effort underway to rewrite the Voting Rights Act in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling. He also struck the proper tone on the ongoing war on terror and the end of the conflict in Afghanistan. His announcement that the nation is moving off a war footing deserved greater emphasis, given the ongoing publicity about surveillance by the National Security Agency.

However, his defense of the Affordable Care Act, while spirited, ignored the serious problems of the law’s rollout. Not only has the website had glitches, few young people have decided to sign up for coverage. While the president didn’t mention it, the health care plan doesn’t work without the participation of a sizeable portion of younger Americans.

Much of the president’s agenda never will resonate with conservatives in Congress, but those members were elected to represent a sizeable portion of the nation. It’s troubling, therefore, that the president would forego political struggles over key issues by finding partial solutions with his executive pen.

Executive orders have been a source of political contention since the start of the republic. Political opponents generally always tend to seize on them as examples of an abuse of power.

President Obama has not used executive orders as often as some chief executives. However, he has used them in high profile and questionable situations that seem unwise.

Rather than trying to move unilaterally, the president would do best to rally the nation to pull together. He has that capacity — as he demonstrated in the moving ending to his speech, summoning the nation’s collective thanks for the valor of our troops through the story of Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg.

In doing so, the president struck a unifying tone by reminding Americans of what makes them part of a great nation. "Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy," he said. That certainly is true on the battlefield, as Remsburg's heroism demonstrated. It's true in the toils of everyday life.

It's also true when it comes to governing in Washington.

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