For Obama, a new sense of purpose in acting alone

WASHINGTON — This week, President

Barack Obama promoted tougher fuel efficiency standards for trucks. He

touted progress on

initiatives to strengthen the U.S. patent system. And he signed an

executive order intended to speed up the process for approving

import or export cargo.

Welcome to Obama’s self-proclaimed “year of action,” where hardly a day goes by without the president and his top advisers

trumpeting policy initiatives the White House is undertaking without the help of Congress.

The mostly modest actions — far shy of the sweeping immigration overhaul Obama hoped for this year — put into sharp focus

the president’s limitations as he grapples with reluctant lawmakers in an election year. They also underscore how much has

changed for Obama since the early days of his presidency, when he declared, “We do big things.”

Yet the flurry of executive actions does seem to be having a cathartic effect inside the White House, which was in need of

a jolt after a frustrating and disjointed 2013 that included the flawed rollout of Obama’s signature health care law and a

sharp drop in the president’s approval ratings. Advisers who ended the year dispirited now appear buoyed by a new sense of

purpose — and the prospect of working around a Congress that has long been an irritant to the president.

“I think people came back from the break over the holidays in a real positive frame of mind,” said David Axelrod, a longtime

adviser to the president. “You don’t want to be the prisoner of a negative narrative that somehow Congress has stymied the

president and nothing can get done.”

Signaling how little the White House

expects to change on Capitol Hill this year, Obama communications

director Jennifer Palmieri

said advisers are already mapping out plans for executive actions

that will be unveiled well into the fall and winter. That

process, she said, “has ignited a lot of creative thinking around


Even so, the president’s political

standing looks little better than it did at the end of last year. His

approval rating continues

to hover in the mid-to low-forties. Democrats are on edge about

their prospects of retaining control of the Senate. And hope

of securing an immigration overhaul — Obama’s one legislative goal

that appeared to have some chance of success this year

— faded when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced this

month that a measure was unlikely to pass in 2014.

In the absence of legislative action,

the White House is pumping out a constant stream of executive actions on

issues touching

the economy, education and climate change. Some are relatively

modest or simply prod along plans that were already in motion.

For example, an executive order Obama

signed on Thursday to streamline the import and export process

established a deadline

for an effort that was already underway. And much of what the

White House touted Tuesday on truck efficiency standards had

already been announced by Obama during a climate change speech

last year. Still, Obama personally heralded an incremental

step forward in the process, even traveling to a Safeway

distribution center in nearby Maryland to highlight steps the grocery

store chain has taken to make its fleet of trucks more efficient.

Other executive actions are intended to

be more wide-ranging, including a partnership with businesses that

promised to not

discriminate against the long-term unemployed during hiring and

$750 million in private sector commitments to expand Internet

access in schools.

The president also signed an executive

action increasing the hourly minimum wage for federal contractors from

$7.25 per to

$10.10. While the White House estimates the wage hike will affect

only a few hundred thousand people, officials hope the move

spurs Congress to take up a broader bill or businesses to act on

their own to increase their workers’ wages. The Gap, a clothing

company, did just that this week, announcing it will set the

minimum wage for workers at $9 an hour this year and $10 an hour

in 2015.

Obama’s predecessors have also turned

to more modest executive actions in the face of congressional gridlock,

including President

Bill Clinton, who once launched a campaign to help schools

implement uniform policies. Some of those who advised Clinton during

that period are also on staff in the Obama White House, including

new presidential counselor John Podesta, a strong proponent

of executive action.

Peter Wehner, who served in three

Republican administrations, said that while Obama’s executive orders are

hardly reshaping

the political landscape in Washington, they may be helping the

White House internally generate a “sense of momentum and action.”

“Sometimes you wake up and you’re happy there’s just not a series of bad stories or bad news,” said Wehner, who last worked

in the White House under George W. Bush. “If you can take the initiative even a little bit, it’s better than being back on

your heels.”


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