BY KATHLEEN HENNESSEY
TRIBUNE WASHINGTON BUREAU/MCT
WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama looks to show off all he can do without Congress, he’s been pointing to a surprising place for guidance on the savvy use of power: the other side of the White House.
In public and private, the president has been holding up Michelle Obama’s initiatives in the East Wing as a template for how the West Wing could accomplish a policy agenda the non-legislative way. He has called his wife’s team a model for what’s possible, and, in his State of the Union address last week, he said, “As usual, our first lady sets a good example.”
The first lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign has reduced childhood obesity for the first time in three decades, Obama asserted in his prime-time speech to Congress and the nation. Her “Joining Forces” effort has led companies to hire or train nearly 400,000 veterans and their spouses, he said. And her successes have come without help from the lawmakers on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
On college opportunities, long-term unemployment and other policy goals, Obama promised to take “a page from that playbook” as he described his plans for a “year of action” in the face of Capitol Hill’s inaction.
It’s easy to see why the president would want to link his new executive action push to his wife’s work.
While Obama’s approval rating has plunged and his domestic agenda appears stuck, Michelle Obama has remained popular, powerful — and largely out of the squabbles that consume Washington. Her “Let’s Move” campaign to encourage children to exercise more and eat right is one of the administration’s best-known public policy efforts.
Pursuit of influence
Still, the idea that the nation’s most powerful political office could start to look a bit more like an office with almost no prescribed power was a notable moment in the White House’s pursuit of influence. Obama has often struggled to wield soft power in Washington, where lawmakers have been largely immune to his persuasion and his attempts to use the bully pulpit have often failed.
This fresh focus on convening interest groups to tackle an issue — part of a host of planned executive actions — was for some an example of an ethos that pervades a White House run by a former community organizer. Others saw it as a reminder of the diminished powers of the presidency.
“In order to lead, he’s bringing all the tools he has to try to effect change,” said James Thurber, a presidential historian at American University. But whatever change can be accomplished through voluntary initiatives, he continued, “It’s usually not permanent. It’s more symbolic than real. And that is a problem for a modern-day president.”
The West Wing’s elevation of the East Wing strategy was on display on Jan. 31 as the president gathered 21 corporate executives at the White House to discuss long-term unemployment. The president has failed for months to persuade Congress to pass an extension of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, which expired at the end of last year for more than a million people.
The meeting of influential stakeholders was at a venue few could refuse. The price of entry was a pledge not to discriminate against job seekers long out of work and to review hiring practices that might unfairly weed out such applicants.
Gene Sperling, Obama’s chief economic adviser, led the long-term unemployment initiative. He said he’d consulted for months with executives. He e-mailed and called many — including News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, an Obama critic — to ask them to sign the pledge.
The tactic, Sperling said, was to take a “positive approach,” focusing on what businesses could do better.
“It is not an admission in doing anything wrong in the past,” he said.
More than 300 companies have signed on, including Apple, Bank of America, Deloitte, Morgan Stanley, McDonald’s and News Corp.
Working with companies, nonprofit groups and advocates is hardly a new approach for a president, but the willingness to reward companies with high-profile praise and the emphasis on voluntary commitments struck some as a new twist.
President Bill Clinton’s White House turned to similar “micro-strategies” to advance ideas and goose Congress, particularly after his party lost the House in 1994, but they didn’t include an “ask” from the White House, said Mark Gearan, a former Clinton deputy chief of staff.
Gearan, now president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., was on the receiving end of such a request last year when
he participated in a White House effort to address inequality in higher education.
More than 100 colleges and universities pledged to find ways to make college more accessible to low-income students. Hobart and William Smith Colleges vowed to work with local public schools to get students ready for college, among other efforts.
Other institutions committed to increase financial aid, partner with foundations to work on college readiness and expand scholarship programs for first-generation college students.
Praise and publicity
Top administration officials, including Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s closest advisers, asked colleges what was possible and offered suggestions and guidelines for pledges, but generally left the options open. The White House reviewed the pledges and presented them to the media and other college officials.
“I think it was a rather savvy blending of the convening authority, the bully pulpit and the opportunity to gain something concrete,” Gearan said.
“Let’s Move” solicits pledges from food companies, restaurants and day care centers aimed at improving food choices for children or encouraging exercise.
In return, Michelle Obama often showers praise on participants — sometimes rewarding them with a visit — high-value publicity for any company. Last month, from a Subway sandwich shop Washington, she heralded the chain’s promise to market only healthy food to children and include more nutritious options on its kids menu.
“Let’s Move” has an affiliated nonprofit group that monitors its pledges, but the promises made by colleges to help low-income students and by businesses to hire the long-term unemployed have no enforcement mechanism.
Still, White House officials say, they’re being more aggressive in rounding up allies than presidents were in the past. Sperling, a former Clinton official, suggested a better comparison might be to a different office, one with only symbolic power: former president.
“Interestingly enough,” he said, “I think this may be somewhat more similar to some of the efforts President Clinton has done in his post-presidency.”