The Age and Fairfax Online

By Nicole Hemmer

Last month, President Barack Obama delivered a major address on economic mobility in America. ''I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American. It's why I ran for President. It was at the centre of last year's campaign. It drives everything I do in this office.'' In this week's State of the Union, Obama built on that speech, laying out his agenda to combat income inequality in the US.

In doing so, he demonstrated that he is destined to be a transitional leader, not a transformational one.

Take the night's big news-maker: Obama's announcement that he had issued an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contracts to $US10.10 an hour. He coupled that with a call for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage for all workers to the same rate, up from the present level of $US7.25.

That's not going to happen — not on Obama's watch. The US Congress, particularly the Republican-controlled House, has spent the past several years careening between all-out obstructionism and futile acts of defiance. (The House has voted to repeal the healthcare act 47 times since 2011.)

The Senate went nearly three years without passing a major piece of legislation. The most significant bill it managed to get through in 2013, immigration reform, was instantly tabled by Republicans in the House. The idea that this Congress would hand the President a meaningful victory in his fight against income inequality beggars belief.

Having attempted to work through the legislative branch to no avail, the President is now attempting to effect change through the executive branch. ''I've got a pen and I've got a phone,'' he said last week, previewing his speech. The pen he will use to sign executive orders, like the one on minimum wage, the phone to call department heads in the sprawling federal bureaucracy and urge administrative action.

The ''pen and phone'' approach, which he outlined in the speech, has determined the shape of what he is calling the ''year of action''. Tired of obstructionism, Obama vowed to act in any way he could to tackle inequality in the US. ''Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do.''

But transformational changes don't happen with pens and phones. They happen with legislation. Consider the civil rights movement. As president, Harry Truman sought to extend equal rights to African-Americans, who were still subject to legal segregation, unequal pay and voter disenfranchisement. Facing an intransigent Congress, he could only rely on his pen and phone. In 1948 he issued Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed services. A significant act, but not enough to deliver on his promise of equal rights.

The presidents who followed, Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy, faced the same limits. When it came to civil rights, they were, like Truman, only transitional figures. It was Lyndon Johnson who finally bent Congress to his will, securing passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act that finally tore down the walls of segregation and opened up the voting booths to African-Americans.

With three years left in his presidency, Obama has not given up on the legislative process. But he has come to understand its limits. Even the legislation he has managed to get through Congress has bedevilled him. In his address he defended at length his central legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Defended: Obama has spent the past four years in a defensive crouch over his healthcare reform law, made worse by the botched rollout of the healthcare exchanges in the US autumn.

Obama came into office five years ago expecting to be a transformational figure. ''Tonight,'' he said in Grant Park on election day 2008, ''because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.''

This State of the Union address shows how time has chastened him. It is now clear that while he can leverage pen and phone to point the way to an economy that works for every American, he will not be the one to bring it into being.

This article was originally published at The Age and Fairfax Online