Frustrated by congressional gridlock, he has turned to the "pen
and the phone" to provoke a "year of action" with a flurry of
executive orders, directives, meetings and reviews to get his
presidency back on track after the difficulties he encountered last
None of the steps he is taking are going to change the world and
indeed, they may be best-remembered collectively as a declaration of
Obama's own relevance, an attempt to go over the heads of his
Republican opponents in Congress and grab the attention of the
It is a strategy that Democratic President Bill Clinton used in his
1996 re-election campaign. Humbled by Republicans in 1994
congressional elections, Clinton helped resurrect his presidency
with similarly small steps like ordering the Education Department to
issue school uniform guidelines to school districts.
In Obama's case, he announced in his State of the Union address last
Tuesday that he would sign an executive order raising the minimum
wage for federal contract workers. But White House officials
acknowledged it would apply only to a couple hundred thousand
workers, a tiny fraction of the country's workforce.
There was an order for the Treasury Department to create a
retirement savings program for the middle class, and he told Vice
President Joe Biden to review federal job training programs.
And using the bully pulpit, Obama met with prominent corporate CEOs
to persuade them to take steps to hire the long-term unemployed,
whose jobless benefits have expired.
SHEDDING THE "SENSE OF STAGNATION"
William Galston, a domestic policy adviser for President Clinton and
now a Brookings Institution scholar, said none of Obama's steps have
the impact of, for example, Harry Truman's dramatic use of an
executive order to ban segregation in the U.S. armed forces in 1948.
What Obama's actions are intended to do, he said, is to "dispel the
bad memory of the failed first year of his second term when he
seemed to be stalled and stalemated at every turn and replace that
sense of stagnation with a sense of forward movement."
"Clinton's orders were more of a political strategy than a
substitute for government strategy. I think at the end of the day
the same can be said of what Obama's doing," said Galston.
It is no coincidence that Obama has embarked on this strategy with
the aid of special adviser John Podesta, who was a champion of
executive orders when he worked in the Clinton White House.
"I think he's warmed up to it," Podesta said of Obama in an
interview with NPR on Tuesday. "And I think you'll see that across a
wide range of topics, including retirement security, moving forward
on his climate change and energy transformation agenda."
White House officials say Obama is not giving up on pushing broad
legislation through Congress and in fact they see signs of movement
on a long-stalled immigration reform law, which would be a
legacy-building achievement of his second term.
By ordering the minimum wage raised to $10.10 an hour for federal
contract workers, Obama hopes to trigger a broader debate about the
need to raise the minimum wage for millions of working Americans, a
proposal that Republicans oppose for fear of damaging small-business
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama's meeting with chief
executive officers on Friday on hiring the long-term unemployed is
not an attempt to circumvent Congress, but rather is the use of a
power that lawmakers simply do not have.
"There exist executive actions that actually serve to complement
legislative action. You can't force, through legislation, business
leaders to make a commitment to re-evaluate their hiring practices,"
Obama, a former senator, has for the most part deferred to Congress
and sought legislative approval of his priorities.
Last November at an event in San Francisco, he rejected hecklers who
urged him to use the power of executive orders to end the
deportation of illegal immigrants.
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"If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing them
through Congress, then I would do so, but we're also a nation of
laws, that's part of our tradition," he said.
This year, with control of Congress at stake in November elections,
he is adjusting his strategy.
Chris Lehane, who was a senior aide to Vice President Al Gore, said
the steps Obama is taking are important to satisfying voters who
gave the president a second term in 2012.
"It gives you a capacity to impose your will, both from a policy
perspective on the direction of the country but also from a
political perspective, by putting the opposition squarely on the
defensive," he said.
The orders Obama announced in his big speech did not appear to be of
the type that could face legal challenges, despite complaints from
some conservatives suggesting he is breaking the law.
"SMALL" IS RELATIVE
Obama's use of executive orders has been relatively tame compared
with his immediate predecessors. He signed 147 in his first term,
compared with George W. Bush's 173, Bill Clinton's 200 and Ronald
But such record-keeping can miss the point. Presidents use power in
a variety of ways beyond simply executive orders.
John Woolley, co-director of the American Presidency Project, which
collects and analyzes presidential documents, said one of Obama's
most significant executive actions, to allow young people who are in
the country illegally to avoid deportation, was announced in an
order from then-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in
"In that case, there was no document that went from the White House
to Janet Napolitano that directed her to take that action," Woolley
While Obama's recent moves may look small, his administration has
used executive power in large ways.
Last July, Republicans were outraged when the Treasury Department
ruled it would delay for a year enforcement of an Affordable Care
Act provision requiring businesses with more than 50 employees to
provide health coverage to their workers.
Lanhee Chen, a Hoover Institution expert who was chief economic
adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012,
said that since the employer mandate was part of Obama's signature
healthcare law, "a lot of constitutional scholars would argue" that
his action violated the law itself.
Romney had vowed to roll back the Obamacare law if he had won the
White House. How would he have done it if he had opposition from
Democrats in Congress?
"We'd have to be pretty forceful in terms of executive action on
Obamacare," Chen said.
(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton in Washington; editing by
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