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
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.

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