Calling for "all hands on deck" to assist the economy, President Barack Obama is urging his Cabinet to identify ways to keep his administration relevant to people struggling in the up-and-down recovery.
With two weeks left before delivering an economy-focused State of the Union address to Congress, Obama is picking up the pace of his jobs message and demonstrating how he can advance his economic agenda administratively and through his ability to coax action from important interest groups.
"We're not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we're providing Americans the kind of help they need," Obama said Tuesday as he convened his first Cabinet meeting of the year. He said he would instruct his department heads to "use all the tools available to us" to assist the middle class.
“I’ve got a pen, and … I’ve got a phone,” Obama said. “And I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward” to keep the economy moving forward.
On Wednesday he will go to North Carolina to draw attention to the type of manufacturing innovation hub that he promoted in his 2013 State of the Union speech. On Thursday he has invited college presidents to discuss ways to improve workers' skills. Later this month, he is convening CEOs at the White House to lay out plans for hiring the long-term unemployed.
"Overall, the message to my Cabinet, and that will be amplified in our State of the Union, is that we need all hands on deck to build on the recovery that we're already seeing," Obama said. "The economy is improving, but it can be improving even faster."
The approach has strong echoes of Obama's 2012 "We can't wait" campaign that sought to depict Obama as an impatient executive in the face of inaction from Congress, particularly in the Republican-controlled House.
Obama's reliance on his executive powers and his bully pulpit — at the White House it's called his "pen-and-phone" strategy — illustrates the means at his disposal to drive policy but also highlights the limits of his ability to work with Congress.
Only through legislation can Obama obtain some of the most ambitious items on his economic agenda — from a higher minimum wage to universal preschool to an overhaul of immigration laws, three items in his 2013 State of the Union that will make a return appearance in this year's address.
As long as Republicans in Congress are unreceptive to his legislative priorities, he will have to settle for more incremental and narrower solutions that don't necessarily have the staying power and the force of law.
Last week, Obama announced that five communities had been designated as "promise zones," fulfilling a goal he set out in his 2013 State of the Union speech. Last year, Obama also announced that he intended to launch three manufacturing hubs like the one he will showcase Wednesday in Raleigh, N.C. But in an example of his limitations, he also called on Congress to create 15 more similar hubs, a request that went unanswered.
Obama's determination to use the power of executive orders and administrative actions as well as his decision to convene key figures from private enterprise, education and other interest groups to help advance his agenda underscores some of the built-in powers of the presidency. Clinton-era White House chief of staff John Podesta, who is joining the White House as a senior adviser, has long pressed Obama to use his executive authority to get around congressional opposition.
Podesta co-authored a report in 2010 for the liberal Center for American Progress that was essentially a treatise on presidential authority. It argued that both presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton had enacted aspects of their agendas even in the face of a divided Congress.
"The upshot: Congressional gridlock does not mean the federal government stands still," Podesta wrote. "This administration has a similar opportunity to use available executive authorities while also working with Congress where possible."
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