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College presidents, corporate CEOs to help Obama in end-run around Congress

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 4, 2014

President Obama's vow to work without Congress this year doesn't mean he's going it alone.

The president has called on allies outside Washington to help implement pieces of his agenda that have stalled in a gridlocked Congress. University presidents and CEOs of top American companies are among Mr. Obama's partners willing to help tackle long-term unemployment, the lack of college access for low-income students and other national problems.

Presidents in the past may have used the bully pulpit to advance their agendas, but analysts say Mr. Obama is recruiting rather than bossing around private companies and top universities to take the place of Congress.

"He's inviting them to be a part of a policymaking process that does not include Congress. He's trying to encourage CEOs and heads of colleges to adopt policies and to think about the ideas for policy reform that don't include Congress, where Congress is just sort of missing in action. He's saying, 'Let's do this on our own,'" said William Howell, a politics professor at the University of Chicago who has written extensively on executive power.

On Tuesday, the president announced his latest policy initiative that came about not through congressional negotiations or federal appropriations, but by handshake agreements with American business leaders.

During a speech at Buck Lodge Middle School in Adelphi, Md., the president announced commitments of $100 million or more from companies such as Apple, Verizon and Sprint to boost broadband service to K-12 schools and aid students through digital learning programs.

The ConnectED program, which Mr. Obama introduced last year, is designed to connect 99 percent of the nation's students to Wi-Fi technology within five years.

"This is something we can do without waiting for Congress," Mr. Obama said to a group of students at the school. "All of us have a stake in your education and your future."

During his "year of action" through executive authority, Mr. Obama has promised to turn to "business leaders, education leaders and philanthropic leaders" to join his administration to implement change.

Last month, the president secured commitments from more than 300 American companies to revamp their hiring practices to better help the long-term jobless return to the workforce.

With a proposed extension of unemployment benefits tied up in Congress, Mr. Obama announced that his partners in the business sector no longer will consider how long an applicant has been out of work.

The partners also have agreed to place less importance on a prospective employee's credit history, which Mr. Obama said is an unfair metric because it's understandable that those who have been out of work at least several months may have fallen behind on some bills.

Also in January, the White House collected promises from more than 100 universities, nonprofits and philanthropic groups to help rein in college costs and enhance higher-education opportunities for low-income students.

University presidents said the administration reached out to them directly to solicit the commitments. Congressional leaders appeared to play no role.

Analysts say Mr. Obama is hardly the first president to employ such a strategy, though he is much more vocal and forceful than his predecessors.

They also note a clear political benefit from the approach. Mr. Obama and, by extension, congressional Democrats up for re-election in November, can tell voters that progress has been made in spite of inaction or outright obstructionism in Congress.

Still, the president's actions are much smaller and more targeted than pieces of sweeping legislation.

The initiatives in general also are voluntary. It likely will be impossible to know, for example, whether businesses truly are disregarding the length of time an applicant has been unemployed.

"I don't want to belittle what the president has done, but at the same time, there's a lot of PR going on here," said Stephen Wayne, a professor at Georgetown University's department of government. "It's one thing to pay lip service to the president. It's another to really change modes of behavior. I don't think, in the case of business, they're going to change their modes of behavior because the president asks them to."

From the business or education sector's point of view, taking voluntary action in the absence of law is in itself a benefit, Mr. Howell said. Simply agreeing to a presidential request to change hiring practices, for example, is far less consequential than broad legislation mandating such change.

Businesses "would rather not see a policy enacted into law," Mr. Howell said.

Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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