By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON, Feb 1 (Reuters) - 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 last year.
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 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 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 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 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.