President Obama has dubbed 2014 a “year of action,” vowing to rely heavily on executive authority to accomplish ambitious — but yet unspecified — policy goals.
Top administration officials, perhaps not wanting to get ahead of Tuesday’s State of the Union address, have been vague about what that might entail, even while insisting Obama means to use his “pen and phone” to get things done.
Observers expect the president on Tuesday to make his case for executive action on any number of fronts, from his initiative to tackle climate change to his effort to increase the minimum wage.
But some lawmakers are warning an address focused primarily on actions he can take unilaterally could undermine his legislative agenda.
“If the President really intends to govern through executive fiat, he will incur a tremendous amount of resistance from both policymakers and the American people,” Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) said.
Public interest groups have been frustrated with what they view as slow progress during the Obama administration on a host of environmental, public health and safety protections.
They argue the constraints at the end of Obama’s first term should be lifted now that the president doesn’t have to worry about reelection.
“It’s a different landscape,” said Ron White, director of regulatory policy at the Center for Effective Government. “The hope is that this will be an opportunity to leave a strong legacy of moving forward on some of these public health and environmental issues.”
Groups on the political left are pushing the president to make good on his pledge to tackle global warming and complete a pair of major Environmental Protection Agency rules meant to cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
The action is among no less than 200 items the president could take, on the environment alone, according to a report issued last week by the Center for the New Energy Economy.
Former Obama “climate czar” Heather Zichal helped draft the center’s report.
“Whether it's 129, 200 or 72, the number of executive actions is going to be robust,” Zichal said last week.
The administration could also move without congressional action on chemical safety issues, experts said. Obama last summer directed federal agencies to review chemical plant safety rules on the books following a deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas.
The recent chemical spill that left hundreds of thousands of West Virginians without water for days could add new momentum for an administrative push toward stronger protections, via agency guidance, formal regulations or both.
“There are certain things that the government has to do to protect us,” said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This may be a teaching moment for why we have environmental regulations.”
Upward mobility and economic fairness are expected to be major themes of Obama’s speech, though fiscal policy initiatives generally require congressional backing.
One exception would be an executive order requiring federal agencies to give preference to contractors that paid their employees more than $10.10 an hour, according to proponents of the action, both within and outside Congress.
“It’s an obvious thing he can do without Congress,” said Scott Klinger, the Center for Effective Government’s director of revenue and spending policies.
Earlier this year, 15 senators and 17 members of the House sent Obama a letter urging him to exercise his executive authority, which would pressure companies to match the minimum wage the White House hopes Congress will approve.
Asked about the idea on Friday, White House press secretary Jay Carney would only hint the president had discussed the issue with lawmakers.
As with minimum wage, the administration has remained silent in the face of pressure to take a host of additional administrative action, ranging from requiring labels on genetically engineered foods to relaxing marijuana restrictions.
Obama will go on the road after his address to tout his initiatives.
The White House has kept mum about where the president will travel, but one possibility is a trip to one of a pair of new Department of Defense manufacturing institutes the administration has pledged to award in the coming weeks. The consortiums are envisioned as public-private partnerships, where companies will invest alongside the government to develop new technologies.
One institute will focus on developing advanced lightweight metals, while another will look to build new manufacturing tools to create “factories of the future,” according to a White House official.