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The Pen Is Mightier

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Question: What happens when a president with big ambitions runs into a Congress of small achievements?

Answer: He decides to wield his pen, not to sign legislation but to issue executive orders.

“America does not stand still,” President Obama said Tuesday night in his State of the Union address, “and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

This is, of course, not the presidency Barack Obama envisioned when elected five years ago. But the president has a pen, and he’s prepared to use it to bypass a fractious Congress dominated by ultra-conservatives in the House who disagree with all things Obama (even when they originated the ideas).

Executive orders have a long history. The most famous executive order is the Emancipation Proclamation, issued during the Civil War by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, as a war measure freeing slaves in states still in rebellion against the United States.

Obama promised nothing as dramatic as Lincoln’s famed proclamation, but he did vow to issue an executive order to increase the minimum wage for federal contractors, an important symbolic action that won’t affect many workers. “Of course, to reach millions more, Congress does need to get on board," he said.

As columnist Dana Milbank said, that was an instance of Obama speaking “as if congressional participation was optional.” Another example came when the president referred to Vice President Biden leading a reform of training programs. “And if Congress wants to help,” he said, “you can concentrate funding on proven programs.”

The president appealed to Congress to act on immigration and tax reform and to fund infrastructure projects, but for the most part he recognized that his presidency has been reduced to reform at the margins through the use of executive action.

Executive orders can accomplish only so much. They are also potentially temporary, since Obama’s successor can use the stroke of his or her pen to undo his actions, just as the current president undid a number of Bush-era policies in early 2009. “There’s nothing like legislation,” says Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago and Obama’s first chief of staff. But, he adds, “given the challenges that are mounting, the country cannot afford Congress to go M.I.A.”

Obama sounded rather upbeat, even buoyant, for a president whose room to maneuver is rather constricted. His politically moderate address began with a picture of a country on the rise — not a nation gripped by crisis as so often depicted by the opposition — but an America of declining unemployment, rising school test scores, recovering housing prices, and shrinking deficits. The only problem resided in the House chamber where he spoke. “We are not doing right by the American people,” he told the legislators.

Congress may be mired in “stale” arguments, the president said, but Americans are moving forward, reinventing the nation as the land of opportunity. Why, he said with good humor, in America even “the son of a barkeeper is speaker of the House.” John Boehner, sitting behind the president, smiled and gave a thumbs up.

Obama didn’t attack Congress with vitriol, but with gentle humor. For instance, his defense of equal pay and family leave: “It’s time to do away with workplace policies that belong in a a ‘Mad Men’ episode.” He prodded Congress to raid the minimum wage to $10.10: “Join the rest of the country. Say yes. Give America a raise.”

Even his defense of the Affordable Care Act showed a sunny disposition. “Now,” he said, “I do not expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law. But I know that the American people are not interested in refighting old battles… But let’s not have another 40- something votes to repeal a law that’s already helping millions of Americans… The first 40 were plenty. We all owe it to the American people to say what we’re for, not just what we’re against.”

And that’s mostly what the president did: He told Americans what he is is for. If Congress wants to also say what it’s for, and if Congress and the president can agree, then much can be accomplished.

If not, well, the president always has his pen.

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