With his jobs bill mired in a divided Congress, President Obama has been touting a series of unilateral actions that his administration says will help the middle class and the American economy. His critics, however, say the impact will be limited at best.
Obama today signed an executive order aimed at curbing drug shortages, the latest in a steady drumbeat of half a dozen steps the president has taken as part of his “we can’t wait” campaign.
“We can’t wait for action on the Hill,” Obama said today of pending legislation to address drug shortages during the signing in the Oval Office. “We’ve got to go ahead and move forward.”
While Obama uses sweeping rhetoric in carefully crafted public appearances to promote the benefits of his urgent plans, close inspection of the fine print reveals many can only go so far to address widespread socioeconomic woes without Congress’ help.
“The terms are limited. The tool is limited,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow and congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. “You’ve got to go with what you can do and try to take your case to the public for the next election.”
The new White House order to the FDA, for example, simply “enhances” and “amplifies” steps that are already being taken, officials said. The agency will hire five new staffers to work on drug shortage issues. It sent a letter to drug companies reminding them to report the discontinuation of drugs.
A housing initiative billed last week as relief for some of the estimated 11 million Americans underwater with their mortgages could help roughly 4 million homeowners, according to the administration.
But critics say the number will likely be much lower. They point to the administration’s 2009 refinancing program, which was initially projected to help 5 million borrowers but has served fewer than 1 million.
MF Global, a financial firm run by Obama backer and former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, for example, estimated between 600,000 and 1 million Americans would benefit from the housing plan.
Obama has also hailed an expedited student loan program for 1.6 million college students, saying it will cap their payments at 10 percent of their discretionary income, saving them “hundreds of dollars per month.”
But an analysis published in The Atlantic said the program would save the average eligible student less than $10 per month. Furthermore, the new loan repayment cap only applies to current students who have taken out loans in 2012 and beyond.
An executive action and public fanfare to boost jobs for American veterans has yielded pledges by private companies to hire tens of thousands, but the administration is unable to secure any guarantees - the voluntary commitments notwithstanding.
Add the executive memorandum issued by Obama last week to create a website to help small businesses and you have Republicans crying foul, saying the president’s campaign to circumvent Congress is nothing more than a political stunt to aid his bid for a second term.
“This idea that you’re just going to go around the Congress is just, it’s almost laughable,” House Speaker John Boehner told radio talk show host Laura Ingraham last week. “We’re keeping a very close eye on the administration to make sure they’re following the law and following the Constitution.”
Meanwhile, Obama aides have brushed aside criticism, saying the president’s actions are entirely legal and better than doing nothing at all. However, administration officials have not been able to estimate how many jobs will be created by the executive actions.
“The president’s going to do everything he can, whether it’s on housing, student loans, we’re going to keep this up,” said White House adviser David Plouffe on “Meet the Press” Sunday.
Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod said the steps will lead to progress on deeply rooted social and economic woes.
”There’s no panacea,” Axelrod told CNN. “But if you’re one of the millions of homeowners who can’t refinance their homes because their home values have dropped, even though they’ve made their payments every month, it’s not a small thing. It is a big thing.”
As for why Obama took so long to use his executive powers if he’s had them all along, Axelrod said the problems are “complicated.”
”There’s no silver bullet for them, so you have to keep chipping away at this problem and that is what he’s doing.”
Mann says the strategy is part instructional, part substantive and part political, all without much to lose.
”His Republican critics have been saying all along, ‘why don’t you act?’, assuming he can tell the Congress what to do,” Mann said. “Now he’s acting on what basis he has.”