Here’s How Obama Can Go It Alone

The biggest problems can’t be solved with simple, unilateral solutions. But that doesn’t mean he’s powerless.

Precedent: In its final days, the Clinton administration protected Mendocino National Forest. 
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Ronald Brownstein
Jan. 30, 2014, 4 p.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama is right that through his re­main­ing months he can leave his deep­est im­print primar­ily through uni­lat­er­al ac­tions that don’t re­quire con­gres­sion­al co­oper­a­tion. But they aren’t the ac­tions he high­lighted the most in this week’s State of the Uni­on.

In the speech, Obama offered a co­her­ent vis­ion of the pres­id­ent as cata­lyst and cheer­lead­er. He cor­rectly ar­gued that while the coun­try is stale­mated in Wash­ing­ton, busi­nesses, loc­al gov­ern­ments, and non­profit or­gan­iz­a­tions still show enorm­ous vi­tal­ity in con­front­ing big prob­lems ran­ging from edu­ca­tion to stag­nant in­comes. With vig­or, he pledged to mo­bil­ize the in­nov­at­ors already driv­ing that change. Con­gress, he in­sisted, could join him — or stand aside and mar­gin­al­ize it­self.

The mis­sion Obama defined of crys­tal­liz­ing bot­tom-up in­nov­a­tion is a worth­while, even cre­at­ive, use of pres­id­en­tial au­thor­ity. But for all its vir­tues, this ap­proach con­tains a huge hole: Bold fed­er­al ac­tion is still the pres­id­ent’s most im­port­ant lever to ac­cel­er­ate grass­roots change. It’s as if Obama sought to ex­pand health care cov­er­age by con­ven­ing a White House con­fer­ence of small em­ploy­ers who are already in­sur­ing their work­ers and provid­ing a fa­vor­able in­ter­pret­a­tion of tax law to nudge oth­ers. He covered in­cal­cul­ably more people by passing through Con­gress the health re­form law that had eluded his pre­de­cessors.

And for all the with-or-without-you brio, Obama has few chances to reach such sig­ni­fic­ant le­gis­lat­ive agree­ments with con­gres­sion­al Re­pub­lic­ans. On im­mig­ra­tion, the House GOP this week cracked open the door to leg­al status for the 11 mil­lion im­mig­rants here without doc­u­ments — but the road to agree­ment re­mains long. Wil­li­am Gal­ston, a vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic thinker, also sees op­por­tun­it­ies in tax re­form that might sim­ul­tan­eously fund in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing. But many oth­er ob­serv­ers would be sur­prised if Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress, be­liev­ing that the botched Obama­care rol­lout has provided them the 2014 edge, throw Obama the life­line of any big le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ments.

That pro­spect un­der­stand­ably tilts the pres­id­ent back to­ward uni­lat­er­al ac­tion. But pro­mul­gat­ing more ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders, or con­ven­ing in­nov­at­ors, isn’t the most in­flu­en­tial form of such ac­tion avail­able to him. Obama could make a deep­er mark by ef­fect­ively ex­ecut­ing two ma­jor ini­ti­at­ives he’s already launched: health re­form and reg­u­la­tion of the car­bon emis­sions linked to cli­mate change. Apart from im­mig­ra­tion, no oth­er do­mest­ic pri­or­ity plaus­ibly with­in Obama’s reach will af­fect Amer­ica’s fu­ture — or his leg­acy — as much as wheth­er he can fin­ish what he’s star­ted on those fronts.

The prob­lem is that im­ple­ment­a­tion of big ini­ti­at­ives hasn’t been ex­actly a strong suit for Obama, only the third sit­ting sen­at­or ever elec­ted pres­id­ent. “He has the poli­cy­mak­ing in­stincts of a sen­at­or more than the ad­min­is­trat­ive in­stincts of an ex­ec­ut­ive,” says Don­ald F. Kettl, dean of the Uni­versity of Mary­land pub­lic-policy school.

Ex­hib­it A in Kettl’s case is the dis­astrous rol­lout of the health care web­site, which reen­er­gized GOP op­pos­i­tion to the over­all plan. No oth­er policy achieve­ment through Obama’s re­main­ing time could rival en­trench­ing Obama­care to the point where even a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent and Con­gress in 2017 could not real­ist­ic­ally re­peal it. But that would re­quire a per­sist­ent at­ten­tion to ad­min­is­trat­ive de­tail that ex­pands cov­er­age in a demo­graph­ic­ally bal­anced way and builds pub­lic sup­port, par­tic­u­larly in the med­ic­al com­munity. “He has the po­ten­tial for a mo­nu­ment­al leg­acy in Obama­care,” Kettl says. “But if he fumbles the ad­min­is­tra­tion, he “¦ provides un­end­ing op­por­tun­it­ies for Re­pub­lic­ans, both to at­tack the pro­gram and un­der­mine his party.”

On en­ergy, Obama’s fate re­mains as much in his hands. Com­plet­ing the two reg­u­la­tions the En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency is writ­ing to lim­it car­bon emis­sions from new and ex­ist­ing power plants would change how Amer­ica uses en­ergy more than any­thing else the pres­id­ent might do. Once com­pleted, those rules would im­pel a his­tor­ic shift away from coal for gen­er­at­ing elec­tri­city to­ward lower-car­bon op­tions such as nat­ur­al gas and re­new­ables.

Here, Obama’s chal­lenge is en­sur­ing that these com­plex rules are fi­nal­ized, in a leg­ally de­fend­able form, be­fore he leaves of­fice. He’s dir­ec­ted EPA to fin­ish both rules by June 2015, an am­bi­tious pace. If that sched­ule slips past his term, it be­comes much easi­er for a Re­pub­lic­an suc­cessor to re­verse course (as George W. Bush did with Bill Clin­ton’s un­fin­ished pro­pos­al to reg­u­late mer­cury pol­lu­tion). But “if the fi­nal guidelines have been pro­mul­gated, it makes it much tough­er to modi­fy [be­cause] there would have to be a form­al rule­mak­ing to change the rule,” notes en­vir­on­ment­al con­sult­ant Dina Kruger, former dir­ect­or of EPA’s cli­mate of­fice.

One per­son who well un­der­stands this dy­nam­ic is John Podesta, Obama’s new seni­or ad­viser. One of Podesta’s proudest achieve­ments as Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s last chief of staff was com­plet­ing reg­u­la­tions pro­tect­ing nearly 60 mil­lion acres of na­tion­al forests from de­vel­op­ment. Those reg­u­la­tions wer­en’t fin­ished un­til eight days be­fore Clin­ton left of­fice. But when the suc­ceed­ing Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion tried re­peatedly to re­verse them, it was blocked by the courts and skep­tic­al gov­ernors, and the rules re­main in force today. New pro­pos­als and sweep­ing vis­ions wouldn’t se­cure Obama’s leg­acy nearly as much as en­sur­ing that he leaves his car­bon reg­u­la­tions and health care re­form in equally de­fens­ible po­s­i­tions.

What We're Following See More »
Clinton Foundation Staffers Steered Biz to Bill
3 hours ago

"Two chief fundraisers for the Clinton Foundation pressed corporate donors to steer business opportunities to former President Bill Clinton as well, according to a hacked memo published Wednesday by WikiLeaks. The November 2011 memo from Douglas Band, at the time a top aide to Mr. Clinton, outlines extensive fundraising efforts that Mr. Band and a partner deployed on behalf of the Clinton Foundation and how that work sometimes translated into large speaking fees and other paid work for Mr. Clinton."

Chef Jose Andres Campaigns With Clinton
11 hours ago
House Investigators Already Sharpening Their Spears for Clinton
13 hours ago

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz plans to spend "years, come January, probing the record of a President Hillary Clinton." Chaffetz told the Washington Post: “It’s a target-rich environment. Even before we get to Day One, we’ve got two years’ worth of material already lined up. She has four years of history at the State Department, and it ain’t good.”

Clinton Super PAC Enters the House Fray
17 hours ago

Priorities USA, the super PAC aligned with the Clinton campaign, which has already gotten involved in two Senate races, is now expanding into House races. The group released a 30 second spot which serves to hit Donald Trump and Iowa Rep. Rod Blum, who is in a tough race to win re-election in Iowa's first congressional district. The super PAC's expansion into House and Senate races shows a high level of confidence in Clinton's standing against Trump.

House to Vote on Iran Sanctions Renewal in Lame Duck
17 hours ago

Republican House leaders are planning on taking up a vote to renew the Iran Sanctions Act as soon as the lame-duck session begins in mid-November. The law, which expires on Dec. 31, permits a host of sanctions against Iran's industries, defense, and government. The renewal will likely pass the House, but its status is unclear once it reaches the Senate, and a spokesman from the White House refused to say whether President Obama would sign it into law.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.