The president recently has become fond of saying he has a “pen and a phone.” And while it’s tempting to snarkily suggest that all he needs now is a laptop and a coffee mug to put him on the same level as every intern in America, there is a promise — or a threat — behind those words.
What President Obama is really talking about is power. Senior White House aides have pledged that this will be the “Year of Action” — and it’s a phrase the public will be hearing both before and after the State of the Union address next week and likely during it. The pen, aides say, is used to sign executive orders, actions to implement policy in areas where Congress hasn’t legislated. The phone, they say, is used to rally support, to bring in outside groups from around the country to push Congress to do more.
The White House sought to use that pressure earlier this month when it imported some struggling Americans for an event to dramatize the need to extend unemployment insurance. But that event exposed the problem with the phone, no matter on whose desk it sits: The tactic didn’t work. Congress remains deadlocked over extending those benefits and a solution, when or if it comes, won’t be because of an administration photo-op. And it also reveals the shortcomings of the pen: Obama can’t extend those benefits himself. Those people are hurting, and the president can’t do a thing about it.
That’s just one example, but it underscores the challenge the White House faces as it seeks to appear pro-active in the face of a do-little Congress. When examples of executive power and presidential authority are used in the context of the Obama administration, they’re often cited by conservatives fearfully wringing their hands about some perceived tyrannical power grab. But there are real limits to what this president can do, especially on the economy: legislative ones, legal ones, pragmatic ones. It means the administration has to talk big while walking small or risk being viewed as ineffectual.
If the administration’s “Year of Action” rollout sounds familiar, it’s because this is an old product that’s been reshelved and wrapped in a new and improved package. Ever since Republicans took the House in 2010, Obama has been sounding the same note over and over again. “We Can’t Wait” was a battle cry forged during a Midwestern bus tour three years ago when the president was trying to build support for his American Jobs Act. He gave speech after speech urging Americans to press Congress to pass the legislation. The act, essentially a $450 billion stimulus proposal, rode a bullet train to nowhere.
Since then, the administration has unveiled a series of small-bore economic initiatives that, while well intended, likely can only make a difference at the margins. The first was a $4 billion investment in making buildings more energy-efficient. The most recent came last week in North Carolina, where Obama launched a public-private “innovation hub” intended to develop technologies that could eventually lead to new manufacturing jobs. It wasn’t exactly the kind of direct investment in a “shovel-ready” infrastructure job that Obama has long advocated, something he conceded in his remarks. “This is going to be a long haul,” he said. A query to the White House about how many jobs had been created nationally by the “We Can’t Wait” program went unanswered.
But small ball may be the best game for the administration to play. Every time it has gone larger, it has courted controversy, as when the president unilaterally decided to stop enforcing deportation mandates for certain children of illegal immigrants, to allow them to stay in the country, or the industry furor caused by the Environmental Protection Agency’s new restraints on coal-fired power plans.
And that’s another reason executive actions are risky: Many lead to litigation. Those EPA rules will likely be tied up in federal court, perhaps for years. Just last week, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board — an executive action that very well could be reversed, to the administration’s embarrassment. In the very same week, a federal Appeals Court invalidated Obama-era Federal Communications Commission rules that required Internet service providers to treat all traffic equally.
It might be no surprise, then, that when Obama’s press secretary, Jay Carney, was asked last week whether — as part of the “Year of Action” — the president would be even more aggressive on immigration policy, considering that reform bills remain stalled on the Hill, he demurred. “The way to address all of these issues is through comprehensive immigration reform,” Carney said — not, he implied, through unilateral action.
Remember, this is an administration that insisted it did not have the power to raise the debt ceiling by itself, that asked Congress to ratify its decision to strike Syria, that is now seeking its help to untangle counterterrorism surveillance policy, and that has dragged out its executive discretion so long on approving the Keystone XL pipeline that some Republicans are trying to pass bills to force it to act.
Yes, the president has a pen, and it’s a nice one. But there remains the question of how much ink there’s really left in it.
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Before we get to the specifics of this exposé about escorts working the Iowa and New Hampshire primary crowds, let’s get three things out of the way: 1.) It’s from Cosmopolitan; 2.) most of the women quoted use fake (if colorful) names; and 3.) again, it’s from Cosmopolitan. That said, here’s what we learned:
- Business was booming: one escort who says she typically gets two inquiries a weekend got 15 requests in the pre-primary weekend.
- Their primary season clientele is a bit older than normal—”40s through mid-60s, compared with mostly twentysomething regulars” and “they’ve clearly done this before.”
- They seemed more nervous than other clients, because “the stakes are higher when you’re working for a possible future president” but “all practiced impeccable manners.”
- One escort “typically enjoy[s] the company of Democrats more, just because I feel like our views line up a lot more.”
No matter where you stand on mandating companies to include a backdoor in encryption technologies, it doesn’t make sense to allow that decision to be made on a state level. “The problem with state-level legislation of this nature is that it manages to be both wildly impractical and entirely unenforceable,” writes Brian Barrett at Wired. There is a solution to this problem. “California Congressman Ted Lieu has introduced the ‘Ensuring National Constitutional Rights for Your Private Telecommunications Act of 2016,’ which we’ll call ENCRYPT. It’s a short, straightforward bill with a simple aim: to preempt states from attempting to implement their own anti-encryption policies at a state level.”
Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”
The New Covenant. The Third Way. The Democratic Leadership Council style. Call it what you will, but whatever centrist triangulation Bill Clinton embraced in 1992, Hillary Clinton wants no part of it in 2016. Writing for Bloomberg, Sasha Issenberg and Margaret Talev explore how Hillary’s campaign has “diverged pointedly” from what made Bill so successful: “For Hillary to survive, Clintonism had to die.” Bill’s positions in 1992—from capital punishment to free trade—“represented a carefully calibrated diversion from the liberal orthodoxy of the previous decade.” But in New Hampshire, Hillary “worked to juggle nostalgia for past Clinton primary campaigns in the state with the fact that the Bill of 1992 or the Hillary of 2008 would likely be a marginal figure within today’s Democratic politics.”
At first, “it was pleasant” to see Trevor Noah “smiling away and deeply dimpling in the Stewart seat, the seat that had lately grown gray hairs,” writes The Atlantic‘s James Parker in assessing the new host of the once-indispensable Daily Show. But where Jon Stewart was a heavyweight, Noah is “a very able lightweight, [who] needs time too. But he won’t get any. As a culture, we’re not about to nurture this talent, to give it room to grow. Our patience was exhausted long ago, by some other guy. We’re going to pass judgment and move on. There’s a reason Simon Cowell is so rich. Impress us today or get thee hence. So it comes to this: It’s now or never, Trevor.”