By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON Feb 1 President Barack Obama's sixth
year in office is starting out as a testament to the power of
taking small steps.
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
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 people.
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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 hiring.
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," he said.
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.
"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
'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 Reagan's 213.
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 2012.
"In that case, there was no document that went from the
White House to Janet Napolitano that directed her to take that
action," Woolley said.
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.