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President counting on his ‘pen and phone’

Updated: March 3, 2014 3:25PM



WASHINGTON — With no sword available, a diminished President Barack Obama is falling on his pen and phone, vowing in Tuesday’s State of the Union to sign a series of executive actions to enact parts of his agenda if he can’t get stuff through the GOP House.

At the very top of his speech, Obama scolded Republicans when he talked about Washington being “consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government,” a debate that is “not doing right by the American people.”

Obama told the lawmakers spread before him he’s “eager” to work with them, but if there are no deals, “wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

In 2014, Obama’s strategy is to do an end run around Congress if need be, beginning when the White House announced before the speech that Obama will issue an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour. On Wednesday, Obama will tell the Treasury to create a new retirement savings bond-type of product he called “MyRA.”

Since the start of the year, Obama and his team have been using a new “pen and phone” slogan, shorthand for the stepped-up use of executive orders and administrative actions.

As Obama said at a Jan. 14 Cabinet meeting, “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone — and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward.

“. . . And I’ve got a phone that allows me to convene Americans from every walk of life — nonprofits, businesses, the private sector, universities — to try to bring more and more Americans together.”

The catchwords strike me as lame and overly defensive and — for the better — were not in Tuesday’s speech. But Obama and his team obviously think they are on to something that will resonate with the public.

Obama going unilateral is understandable in the wake of the reality that the GOP-run House and the Democratic Senate and White House — despite a bipartisan budget deal at the end of 2013 — will not reconcile their considerable differences in 2014.

Given the unavailability of miracles, Obama decided that going the executive order route is the only practical way to govern.

Obama and his team started working on this speech last November, putting the final edits in on Tuesday afternoon.

The most distinctive aspect of Obama’s 2014 State of the Union is not the long list of programs he wants to enact — many are not new. It may well be his new reliance on executive actions.

An executive order is not as good as enacting a law, but with few solutions in this mid-term election year, Obama’s pragmatic decision is understandable.

You might wonder why Obama did not just issue more executive orders last year, which could be called his “lost year,” what with the 16-day partial federal shutdown, Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations and the botched Obamacare rollout.

Obama and his advisers have concluded that if he does not take action on his own, he risks a failed second term, without much to show for it.

The consequence of governing by executive order is that it gives the right wing more fodder and it will drive them nuts. That can cut both ways in November.

In the short term, Obama does need Congress for the biggest legacy item on his plate: immigration reform. He deliberately did not dwell on immigration in his speech; it was just a long, 128-word paragraph. That’s because House Republicans are coming up with their immigration plan later this week and there is no point of saying too much until their package is on the table.

Obama’s speech struck a practical balance: plans for action and a hand reaching out to Republicans — on the off chance they will take it.

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet



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