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White House’s ‘We Can’t Wait’ initiatives dwindle, become political

- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2012

Last October, nearly a year before voters would head to the polls, President Obama said he was fed up with Republicans standing in the way of his agenda and rolled out a series of executive branch steps aimed at circumventing Congress and giving the economy a shot in the arm.

"When Congress won't act, this president will," White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said at the time about the new program dubbed "We Can't Wait," a jab at Republicans in Congress for blocking the president's jobs bill and overall economic agenda.

After taking a beating from Republicans during the debt negotiations all summer, the new set of executive actions was an obvious effort to demonstrate that Mr. Obama still had a power base and was working on behalf of everyday Americans.

The first few initiatives tackled big, substantive issues such as lowering refinancing hurdles for underwater homeowners, giving tax credits to companies that hire veterans and making changes to rules governing student loans to help new graduates better manage their payments.

But in the months since, the initiatives — nearly two dozen in all — have been either incremental in nature or appear aimed at currying favor with a key interest group or battleground area of the country that they have packed little to no political punch.

The White House's most recent effort, a $30 million investment to create a manufacturing hub in Ohio announced Thursday, drew little attention from the national media and didn't come up in the White House daily press briefing.

Previous initiatives have ranged from creating a website for small businesses interested in federal export programs, to cutting government red tape for solar- and wind-energy projects projects already in the works to a presidential memorandum requiring federal agencies to develop policies to mitigate the effect of domestic violence on its employees.

The White House didn't respond to an inquiry from The Washington Times asking for any evidence that the series of initiatives had helped the economy or created jobs.

The lack of follow up from the White House is likely by design, said Richard Benedetto a retired White House correspondent for USA Today who covered four presidents and now teaches journalism at American University.

"[Obama] gets a two-fer out of it," Mr. Benedetto said. "He gets to appeal to various interest groups and he uses it to reinforce the notion that the Congress is blocking him from doing good things for the American people" even if the actual effect is negligible or difficult to discern.

Those initiatives appealing to key voting groups, such as the one about establishing a technology hub in Youngstown, Ohio, make a big splash in the local papers even if national reporters give them short shrift.

"[The White House] understands that politics is local. It's like constituent service — only at the presidential level," he added.

While Mr. Benedetto has never seen such a concerted, organized theme to a president's use of executive orders and memorandums, he said Bill Clinton used a similar tactic during the Monica Lewinsky scandal to try to show the American people he was hard at work while the media was in a feeding frenzy over prurient details of his private life.

"[Clinton] did a lot of small-bore things like school uniforms and the v-chip and would tell the media he didn't have time for their Monica questions because 'We've got to tend to the business of the people,'" Mr. Benedetto recalled. "And we would cover all those things because our editors would say we've done so much on Lewinsky, we've got to balance it out."

But Mr. Benedetto says Republicans in Congress are partly to blame for the lack of scrutiny of Mr. Obama's "We Can't Wait" initiatives. Any time President George W. Bush would try to circumvent Congress and take action on his own, he said, Democrats would accuse the administration of a power grab.

"When George W. Bush tried to use some of these executive orders to try to circumvent Congress, he got an awful lot of push back from Democrats about usurping Congressional powers," he said. "You don't see that with Obama."

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