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Politics 2014: Does President Obama's go-it-alone position have teeth?

By NICOLE DEBEVEC, United Press International   |   Feb. 2, 2014 at 4:01 AM
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President Obama said he's willing to work with Congress but won't be hesitant to go it alone to advance his 2014 agenda, telling recalcitrant lawmakers he won't be twiddling his thumbs if they dawdle or fail to act for whatever reason.

During his State of the Union last week, Obama offered up what he called "a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class."

"Some require congressional action, and I'm eager to work with all of you," he told the joint session of Congress. "But America does not stand still, and neither will I."

"So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do."

And it's already begun.

Obama last week issued a memorandum directing Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to create "MyRA," or My Retirement Account, a new retirement savings tool available through employers that is focused on "reaching new and small-dollar savers and shall have low barriers to entry, including a low minimum opening amount."

"MyRA guarantees a decent return with no risk of losing what you put in," Obama said during his State of the Union.

He also issued a memorandum to the secretaries of Commerce, Education and Labor concerning job-driven training for workers as a follow-up to comments in his speech.

"I've asked Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America's training programs to make sure they have one mission: train Americans with the skills employers need and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now," Obama said in the House chamber.

In his memo, Obama directed the development of a specific action plan to make the workforce and training system "more job-driven, integrated and effective." He wants that report within 180 days.

And on Friday, Obama issued a memorandum that bars federal agencies from turning down job applicants because of unemployment or because of experiencing financial difficulties because of unemployment.

"Although executive departments and agencies ... generally can, and do, take job applicants' employment history and other factors into account when making hiring decisions, it is the policy of my administration that applicants should not face undue obstacles to federal employment because they are unemployed or face financial difficulties," Obama said in the memo.

During his address, Obama also said he'd bypass Congress and raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for individuals under new federal contracts through executive order, and said he'd use his authority in other areas as well.

"In the coming weeks, I will issue an executive order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour," Obama said, "because if you cook our troops' meals or wash their dishes, you should not have to live in poverty."

Obama "has decided to advance his agenda with executive orders because he has no real alternative means of making policy," said political commentator Steve Schier, a professor at Minnesota's Carleton College. "The GOP House has blocked his domestic agenda and Obama knows the GOP is likely to keep control of the House throughout the remainder of his presidency.

"So that leaves executive orders as the best opportunity for presidential policymaking."

While an executive order is more limiting than legislative lawmaking, for Obama, "it's about the only game in town," Schier said.

Executive orders are about process and a means for helping shape public policy -- and can be temporary because they can vanish as soon as the presidential author vacates the White House.

"If a presidential successor does not like extant executive orders, the successor can eliminate them with the stroke of a pen," Schier said. "Obama did this to several of George W. Bush's executive orders. A GOP successor to Obama could do the same."

But his naked admission that he would work around Congress -- and he repeated that sentiment several times in one form or another -- caused consternation among conservatives, who railed against what they consider a naked grab for power by Obama.

Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, walked out during Obama's address, telling folks via Facebook he left early "after hearing how the President is further abusing his constitutional powers. I could not bear to watch as he continued to cross the clearly defined boundaries of the constitutional separation of powers."

"Obama has openly vowed to break his oath of office and begin enacting his own brand of law through executive decree," Stockman said, calling it a "wholesale violation of his oath of office."

Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, told CNN Obama is aware of his constitutional limitations and "knows better."

"It's Congress' job to pass the laws. He knows that," King said. "And we need to take our oath seriously and defend the Constitution."

Even before his State of the Union, as its contents began surfacing in drips and dribbles, House Speaker John Boehner warned: "We're going to watch very closely because there's a Constitution that we all take an oath to, including him, and following that Constitution is the basis for our republic and we shouldn't put that in jeopardy."

One thing, though. It isn't like Obama hasn't worked around Congress before. Nor is he the first president to do so.

In June 2012, frustrated with the lack of progress on the so-called DREAM Act -- the Obama administration announced a huge policy shift related to young illegal immigrants.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the government no longer would seek deportation of undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, provided they meet specific criteria, and would allow them to apply for work permits. Those meeting the criteria could receive deferred action for a 2-year period and will be eligible to apply for work permits.

At the time, Obama said the department's decision to refocus its enforcement would "mend our nation's immigration policy to make it more fair, more efficient and more just."

Republicans accused his administration of overreach and that the matter was best decided within Congress. Still no congressional action has been taken.

Obama allies noted to the New York Times that executive orders can create momentum and some -- such as the Emancipation Proclamation, the order by President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the military and President Bill Clinton's expansion of public lands through the declaration of national monuments -- have been transformative.

"There is nothing like legislation," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was Obama's first chief of staff and a former House member, told the Times. "But given the challenges that are mounting, the country cannot afford Congress to go MIA."

Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., conceded governing by executive order is not ideal but there is little else could Obama do given the depth of Republican opposition.

"This is not a panacea, this is not the fix we are looking for," he said of the president's action on wages. "But he is leading by example, sending a message to Congress that we need to raise the minimum wage for all Americans."

President Obama "can issue executive orders, but they are subject to federal court review and reprisals by Congress," political commentator Schier said. "So those constraints do limit the range of his ability to issue orders. Usually presidents issue orders elaborating on present laws, rather than attempting to create broad new laws, in order to avoid Congressional and court opposition."

It's not exactly as if Obama has been using up ink signing executive orders, either. The Federal Register indicates Obama has signed 167 executive orders -- fewer than any president in the same time period dating back to Truman, the Washington Post reported. Bush 43 signed just about as many -- 166 -- in a single term as Obama has through his first five calendar years as president.

Every president since George Washington has used executive orders, research by CNBC indicated. More than 13,000, in some manner, have been issued since 1789 and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld all but two. One issued by Truman was meant to prevent strikes during the Korean War by placing all the nation's steel mills under federal law and one by President Bill Clinton barred the federal government from entering into contracts with organizations that hire replacements for striking workers.

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