Ronald Reagan used to say the nine most terrifying words in the English language were: "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."
Barack Obama is offering Americans his own twist on that message: He's from the government and he needs your help.
Frustrated by the inability of Congress and the White House to reach agreement on much of anything, the president is increasingly relying on his powers of persuasion to cajole people and organizations to help tackle some of the country's big problems — voluntarily.
Lots of presidents promote volunteerism, of course. This is something different.
The president this year has exercised what the White House calls his "convening powers" to bring together influential groups to focus on the challenges facing young black men, the trials of the long-term unemployed, and barriers to a college education that face the disadvantaged, among other things. He's held a student film festival to spotlight the need to improve technology in public schools. And coming up in June: a White House meeting on working families designed to push businesses to adopt more family-friendly policies and pay female employees on par with men.
Obama will pretty much try anything to mobilize support for his agenda: He turned up on the comic website Funny or Die recently to plug his health care law on Zach Galifianakis' mock interview show "Between Two Ferns." Within days, the interview had snagged 18 million views, on par with Justin Bieber. The same day as the interview, Obama went sweater shopping at a Gap store in Manhattan, a high-profile reward for a company that has moved voluntarily to boost the minimum wage for its workers.
It's all part of Obama's "pen and phone" strategy for 2014, in which he's signing more executive orders to advance his policies (the pen) and chatting up governors, businesses, foundations, and others to generate action in the absence of new legislation (the phone).
With the multiplier effects of social media, the cajoler-in-chief can accomplish more than one might think, in the White House view.
"There are things that a president can do with his phone or with his convening authority, that Congress can't do," says Obama senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer. He points to the hundreds of companies who've heeded a presidential call and committed to do more to hire the long-term unemployed.
"That's something only the president really can do," Pfeiffer said.
But there's also a lot the president really can't do.
Presidential scholars say the president's efforts to mobilize support are all well and good — but voluntary measures don't have the same oomph as laws, or the same staying power.
"You can at least start some conversations that wouldn't take place otherwise. You can persuade members of the private sector and the nonprofit sector to do pilots and demonstrations that may smooth the path for future actions on a broader scale," says William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who served in the Clinton White House. "But in a number of key areas, there is simply no substitute for legislation."
Calvin Mackenzie, a presidential scholar at Colby College in Maine, says Obama's work-the-phone strategy reflects a long-term deterioration of presidential powers.
"Presidents just are not very well equipped to the lead the country right now," he says.
Mackenzie said it's one thing for a bunch of college presidents to nod in agreement — as they did in January — when they met with Obama about making college more accessible to the disadvantaged, but concrete change is far from guaranteed when the summit microphones are turned off and "the financial realities push you in the opposite direction."
The White House insists its "year of action" is off to a strong start.
Obama's "pen" has been put to work on a number of executive orders and directives, including measures to boost the minimum wage for workers on new federal contracts, strengthen overtime pay protections for millions of workers and push tougher fuel efficiency standards.
Officials say his "phone" work has produced a string of private commitments to advance important causes: $1 billion in pledges to help students gain access to high-speed Internet and cutting-edge technology; $200 million from foundations to support programs that help young people stay out of jail and go to college and promises from major U.S. companies to hire the long-term unemployed, among others.
Even so, that's a far cry from the immigration overhaul Obama wants, a debt-reduction deal or the heavyweight health care and financial-regulation laws he achieved in his first term.
Pfeiffer acknowledges the limitations of presidential persuasion vs. legislation, but he says the "democratization of media and the power of social media gives a president greater ability to draw attention to issues and build momentum."
The Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank with close ties to the White House, plans to co-host the working families summit with the White House in June. Center President Neera Tanden points to the workplace as one area where "you can have substantial policy change without legislation."
She cites President Bill Clinton's success in putting greater emphasis on mental health care and first lady Michelle Obama's work on reducing childhood obesity as successful campaigns that made good use of the bully pulpit.
Obama himself has pointed to his wife's "Let's Move" campaign against obesity and her "Joining Forces" effort to support military families as good models, Pfeiffer says. He adds that since voluntary campaigns often attract bipartisan support, they can turn out to have more staying power even than laws or executive orders, which can be reversed when power changes hands in Washington.
Still, George Edwards, a political science professor at Texas A&M University who's written a book on presidential use of the bully pulpit, said Obama's strategy shows "what presidents are reduced to in an era of great polarization, in which your initiatives are not going to go anywhere." He sees the president's persuasive efforts as effective only at the margins.
Obama seemed to acknowledge as much when he wrote in a recent congressional campaign fundraising letter to supporters: "Let me level with you: The only way we're going to achieve our goals is by electing more Democrats in 2014."
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