When a president frames his speech around a call for a "year of action," you can safely bet that the next 12 months will be as action-packed as an afternoon nap. The subtext of last night's State of the Union address was that Obama's presidency is not just frustrated but tired; it's not only that he can't do much, thanks to Republicans in Congress, it's that he has so few remaining ideas about what to do. (Last night's most significant new ideas was a vaguely explained government-backed retirement savings program.)
Five years in, the Obama presidency has already been exhausted. And so Obama plans to ride it out, propping up the laws he has already passed, doing his best to stop Democrats from losing too many seats in 2014, and tweaking policies through executive action where he can. Yes, there will still be controversies surrounding his administration, and yes, the president will still be the center of considerable attention and controversy from both fans in critics—but mostly for what he's already done, not what he wants to do. He'll be in office for another three years, but he's already finished. Obama is over.
Meanwhile, as the Obama presidency grows stale, it's the once agenda-less Republicans and their conservative allies who are busy generating fresh new ideas. Obama has talked broadly about tax reform for years, but it's Republican Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) who recently put forth a big plan to overhaul the tax code. Obama last night challenged Republicans who oppose Obamacare to present some kind of alternative—but failed to acknowledge the three GOP Senators (Coburn, Hatch, and Burr) who did so just this week. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and Sen. Marco Rubio have spent the last month talking up policies to address poverty. Lee and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are amongst the nation's most aggressive champions of criminal justice reform. Obama's State of the Union rehashed old, flawed arguments about health care and education; Sen. Lee's response to the president's address highlighted a slew of Republican reform ideas from transportation to education to energy.
Meanwhile, small but influential journals like National Affairs provide a forum for right of center policy wonks to work through their ideas in detail, looking at both what to do and how to do it. The evidence suggests that at least some Republican politicians are listening.
You can see tensions, too. There's a push and pull at work, between technocratic conservatism and revivalist libertarianism, between those who are more concerned with, say, spending taxpayer money well and those more concerned with spending money less, between the party's individualistic impulses and its communalist concerns. There's still plenty left to work out.
But this is how a party develops an agenda. Not overnight, with a dictum from the top or the selection of a presidential candidate, but over time, through iteration and experimentation, and through a conversation with itself—and eventually with its critics as well. For too long, the right has lacked the infrastructure to start this conversation and the political will to carry it on. Its agenda has been opposition, and little else. But that's changing, in part because of the efforts of conservative reformers, and in part because the Obama agenda is so clearly nearing its end.
Not all of these Republican ideas are fully formed. Not all of them are practical, or politically feasible. And not every Republican is on board; party leadership is still far too hesitant to engage with the right's policy reformers. But Republicans are, finally, talking about what to do. Obama is stuck talking about what he's already done.