WASHINGTON — Last week, President Barack Obama promoted tougher fuel efficiency standards for trucks. He touted progress on initiatives to strengthen the U.S. patent system. And he signed an executive order intended to speed up the process for approving import or export cargo.
Welcome to Obama's self-proclaimed "year of action," where hardly a day goes by without the president and his top advisers trumpeting policy initiatives the White House is undertaking without the help of Congress.
The mostly modest actions — far shy of the sweeping immigration overhaul Obama hoped for this year — put into sharp focus the president's limitations as he grapples with reluctant lawmakers in an election year. They also underscore how much has changed for Obama since the early days of his presidency, when he declared, "We do big things."
Yet the flurry of executive actions does seem to be having a cathartic effect inside the White House, which was in need of a jolt after a frustrating and disjointed 2013 that included the flawed rollout of Obama's signature health care law and a sharp drop in the president's approval ratings. Advisers who ended the year dispirited now appear buoyed by a new sense of purpose — and the prospect of working around a Congress that has long been an irritant to the president.
"I think people came back from the break over the holidays in a real positive frame of mind," said David Axelrod, a longtime adviser to the president. "You don't want to be the prisoner of a negative narrative that somehow Congress has stymied the president and nothing can get done."
Signaling how little the White House expects to change on Capitol Hill this year, Obama communications director Jennifer Palmieri said advisers are already mapping out plans for executive actions that will be unveiled well into the fall and winter. That process, she said, "has ignited a lot of creative thinking around here."
Even so, the president's political standing looks little better than it did at the end of last year. His approval rating continues to hover in the mid-to low-forties. Democrats are on edge about their prospects of retaining control of the Senate. And hope of securing an immigration overhaul — Obama's one legislative goal that appeared to have some chance of success this year — faded when House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, announced this month that a measure was unlikely to pass in 2014.
In the absence of legislative action, the White House is pumping out a constant stream of executive actions on issues touching the economy, education and climate change. Some are relatively modest or simply prod along plans that were already in motion.
For example, an executive order Obama signed on Thursday to streamline the import and export process established a deadline for an effort that was already underway. And much of what the White House touted Tuesday on truck efficiency standards had already been announced by Obama during a climate change speech last year. Still, Obama personally heralded an incremental step forward in the process, even traveling to a Safeway distribution center in nearby Maryland to highlight steps the grocery store chain has taken to make its fleet of trucks more efficient.
Other executive actions are intended to be more wide-ranging, including a partnership with businesses that promised to not discriminate against the long-term unemployed during hiring and $750 billion in private sector commitments to expand Internet access in schools.
The president also signed an executive action increasing the hourly minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 per to $10.10. While the White House estimates the wage hike will affect only a few hundred thousand people, officials hope the move spurs Congress to take up a broader bill or businesses to act on their own to increase their workers' wages. The Gap, a clothing company, did just that this week, announcing it will set the minimum wage for workers at $9 an hour this year and $10 an hour in 2015.
Obama's predecessors have also turned to more modest executive actions in the face of congressional gridlock, including President Bill Clinton, who once launched a campaign to help schools require school uniforms. Some of those who advised Clinton during that period are also on staff in the Obama White House, including new presidential counselor John Podesta, a strong proponent of executive action.
Peter Wehner, who served in three Republican administrations, said exercising presidential power is a good way for a White House to generate a "sense of momentum and action."
"Sometimes you wake up and you're happy there's just not a series of bad stories or bad news," said Wehner, who last worked in the White House under George W. Bush. "If you can take the initiative even a little bit, it's better than being back on your heels."
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