President Barack Obama’s year of action could amount to a lot of running in place.
The constitutional constraints on his authority and lack of cooperation in Congress are a recipe for low-yield initiatives with limited reach. But limited executive actions, such as the ones he announced Tuesday night, might be all government can bear to do in an election year when Congress’ balance of power is on the line.
The president renewed his call for Congress to increase the national minimum wage, to overhaul immigration laws, to broaden access to preschool education, to expand international trade. These were all features of his 2013 State of the Union address and remain unmet goals of his second term. This time Obama presented them as pieces of a larger whole, parts of an overarching opportunity agenda that acknowledges that even in a recovering economy, not all Americans are reaping the benefits.
“Let’s make this a year of action,” Obama declared, in what has become the rallying cry of his sixth year in office. “What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class.”
But the new packaging can’t mask the hard slog Obama still faces in Congress. And his path might be obstructed not just by adversaries, but by allies as well.
Certainly Republicans, who control the House, can do much to thwart him on efforts such as immigration. House GOP leaders say they want to act on legislation this year, but conservative lawmakers have been mounting stiff opposition. Republicans also could initiate a showdown over increasing the nation’s borrowing authority later this month by insisting on spending cuts or rollbacks on the president’s health care law. Obama has vowed not to negotiate.
Obama’s call for Congress to raise the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour could be the type of initiative that serves Democrats more as an election-year issue than an accomplishment. Polls show that a majority of Americans support the increase, a finding Senate Democrats might seek to exploit by scheduling votes that are bound to fail as a way to illustrate Republican opposition.
Obama also is calling for an expansion of the earned-income tax credit, which helps boost the wages of low-income families through tax refunds. Some Republicans and conservative economists have also called for broadening the tax credit so it provides additional help to workers without children. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has even proposed replacing the tax credit with a federal wage supplement for certain low-paid workers. Unlike Obama, however, Republicans have suggested expanding the tax credit as an alternative to increasing the minimum wage. So which one will it be?
Obama has also been pressing for trade legislation, asking Congress for “fast track” authority that would allow him to more easily complete negotiations with Asia-Pacific nations and with the European Union. Republicans favor the trade agreements, but Obama has faced opposition from Democrats. On Monday, a broad coalition of groups typically associated with Democrats, including labor unions and environmental organizations, released a letter demanding Congress vote against Obama’s request.
Indeed, with Democratic control of the Senate at stake in the November election, Democrats will be eager to show voters contrasts between the two parties and won’t be in a mood to challenge some of their main constituent groups. As the year unfolds, Obama and Senate Democrats could face competing interests.
“The tricky piece in this is Senate (Democrats) and whether or not there will be a full alignment of what they think works for them going into 2014 and what works for him,” said Patrick Griffin, a Democratic lobbyist who handled legislative affairs in President Bill Clinton’s White House. “I’m not sure the Senate Democrats could care less whether they make a deal on anything.”
That gloomy prospect places the burden on Obama to act on his own.
“America does not stand still, and neither will I,” he declared.
But executive actions have their limits. They can’t assign new spending, their impact tends to be narrowly targeted, and they can be reversed by subsequent presidents.
In his showcase go-it-alone initiative of the night, Obama said he will increase the minimum wage for new federal contracts. But the increase won’t affect existing contract workers who may be working now below the minimum wage, and renewed contracts will only require the higher wage if other terms of the contract change. The order will cover those new contracts that take effect in the beginning of 2015.
Republicans fret that Obama might overstep his bounds. But on this one, House Speaker John Boehner was dismissively unimpressed:
“The question is, how many people, Mr. President, will this executive action actually help? I suspect the answer is somewhere close to zero.”