Obama can't create many jobs without Congress' help

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 2, 2011 

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's own job may be on the line as he presents his plan for job creation next week, with the nation's unemployment rate mired at 9.1 percent and his popularity at a record low.

He'll call on Congress to back him on a package of proposals that the White House says will put Americans back to work. Earlier this summer he tried to rally public pressure on Congress to do as he wished, and he may do so again, exercising his power of "the bully pulpit." This week he threatened to bash Republicans on the campaign trail if they fail to follow his lead.

But Republicans in Congress are dead set against any big new spending program, and they control the House of Representatives, so the prospect of no big new jobs program rolling out of Washington before 2013 looms large.

In light of that, is there anything else Obama can do on his own to spur job creation?

Probably nothing significant.

The White House says there are some steps the executive branch can take without congressional approval, but independent analysts — even those who are pressing Obama to make an ambitious case in his address next Thursday for a sweeping job-creation package — say the magnitude of the nation's problems is so large that it's beyond anything the executive branch can do on its own.

"I know it's tempting to look for a man-on-a-white-horse response to this situation as a way out of the gridlock between the two parties ... but we have to solve this as a country," said William Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a center-left policy research center.

Galston said presidents had executive power they could use to "speed things up or slow things down" within existing programs, "but if you try to do things that go beyond what Congress has authorized, particularly right now with the partisan polarization so intense, I don't think it would get very far."

The Constitution gives Congress primary power over taxes and spending. Congress gives money to the executive branch designated for specific purposes. The president isn't empowered to take money appropriated for, say, the Pentagon, and spend it instead on a new jobs program of his own design. When past presidents have tried to exert economic powers beyond what's given to them by Congress and the Constitution, they've gotten slapped down.

President Harry Truman tried to take over the steel industry, citing a national emergency, but the Supreme Court ruled the action unconstitutional, Galston noted. Richard Nixon tried to "impound" money that Congress had appropriated rather than spend it as intended, but Congress struck back with a budget act that constrained him and effectively denied him the power.

Galston suggested that 90 to 95 percent of what Obama will recommend next week "will require someone else's consent," namely Congress.

Republicans say there's plenty Obama could do, beginning with embracing tax cuts, revoking federal regulations that they say handcuff business — and abandoning any push for more federal spending to spark job creation.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Friday blamed sluggish private-sector job growth on the "triple threat of higher taxes, more failed 'stimulus' spending and excessive federal regulations.

"Together, these Washington policies have created a fog of uncertainty that's left small businesses unable to hire and American families worried about the future."

White House officials and the economists they rely on say the economy needs feeding, not starvation. Obama is under pressure from liberal groups to push for an aggressive fix for the jobs crunch, and not to settle for recommending only a limited agenda tailored to what the administration thinks Congress would accept.

"The best thing he could do is to explain how serious the crisis is, that we're on the precipice of a decade-long calamity," said Len Burman, a tax official who served in the Treasury Department under Clinton and co-founded the Tax Policy Center in Washington. "He should explain the severity, and that because of that, the economy needs extraordinary measures. This is a classic situation where government needs to spend to make up for the lack of demand in the economy."

However, Republicans oppose that prescription as a rule, so any Obama recommendation for new spending faces an uphill climb, if not a slammed door.

The White House says it has tools beyond the bully pulpit. The president said last month that he's challenged companies to hire more soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last week he directed his Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development departments each to identify three high-priority projects that could create jobs and have already been funded by Congress. The administration is hoping to speed the review and permitting process for those projects and have them start within 18 months.

"The president has certain powers," White House spokesman Jay Carney said. "The executive branch has certain things it can do. And we're always looking. ... There are a variety of things we can do."

But he declined to offer any specifics on what Obama may propose next week, saying, "I don't want to ruin the surprise."

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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