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viewpoint

‘Pick up the phone’

| Monday, February 24, 2014

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but for President Obama, it is the phone that reigns mightiest of all.

It was just over a month ago that Obama reiterated his willingness to bypass regular legislative channels and rely on executive action to achieve his legislative priorities.

“We’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help they need,” Obama said. “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone. And I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward.”

Critics and supporters alike have had much to say about that pen since Obama made those remarks, but it is the latter half of his arsenal upon which the president should be focused. Interacting with Congress is ultimately the only way Obama is going to achieve meaningful legislative victories in the remaining years of his presidency, and a phone call might just be the way to get the ball rolling.

While I argued two weeks ago that Obama ought to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline (a move which, coincidentally, would certainly receive wide congressional backing), a minimum wage adjustment, immigration overhaul and education reform are much weightier issues that will not see action without congressional support.

Critics have pounced on the president’s preference for unilateral action, saying it disregards the spirit of the Constitution. For the most part, I agree with the critics. But a more immediate consequence of Obama’s go-it-alone rhetoric is that it leads to unrealistic expectations among those Americans who view such consequential topics as much more than political footballs.

Take immigration reform as the latest example. The New York Times reported hundreds of youths gathered in Phoenix this past weekend for an annual meeting of the network United We Dream. Frustrated by Congress’s lack of action on the issue, the young immigrants and children of immigrants marched to press Obama to use his executive power to unilaterally stop deportations.

The president admitted in November that he can’t do this when he was interrupted by a protester during a speech he gave on immigration reform in San Francisco.

When the protester told Obama he had the power to “stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country,” the president responded, “Actually, I don’t. And that’s why we’re here … If, in fact, I could solve all these problems without passing the laws in Congress then I would do so. But we’re also a nation of laws, that’s part of our tradition.”

I respect the president’s sense of urgency to address national issues. But each time he touts his power to act unilaterally, he reinforces an unrealistic set of expectations for what he alone can achieve. It is unfair to the low wage worker expecting a raise, or the young immigrants marching in Phoenix, or the single mother eager to find a preschool for her child, to expect their concerns to be adequately addressed in a stroke of the president’s pen.

So what is the president to do?

Put down the pen and pick up the phone.

Rather than tell the American people that you’re going to act alone, show them that you will do whatever it takes to work with Congress and make real progress on these issues, rather than setting yourself up to fail by pushing ahead alone.

Admittedly, 2014 is not the most conducive environment for legislative achievements. An election year might make for political theater, but for the majority of Americans who are more concerned with public policy than electoral battles, it can be a miserable experience.

Nonetheless, Obama has a responsibility as president to take the lead in making 2014 a “year of action,” as he himself described it. Don’t allow members of Congress to put the business of governing on hold for their reelection campaigns. Keep the important issues relevant. Promote national debates and search out allies and opponents in Congress to work with in even the toughest political environments.

In simple terms — be a leader.

At the very least, stop telling Americans that solutions to poverty, immigration and education, among other issues, can be achieved through the actions of one man.

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