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Expanding ‘opportunity’ cannot be done alone

WASHINGTON – The state of the economy remains fragile, and the state of the government remains deeply divided.

President Obama didn’t put it that bluntly, but that seemed to be an underlying theme of his annual State of the Union address Tuesday night.

The speech he delivered echoed the hints and leaks that the administration has been placing in the media for weeks.

The bottom line?

If Congress remains too paralyzed to act to address growing concerns about an economic recovery that has left millions of Americans behind, then Obama will.

“What I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class,” he said in his prepared remarks. “Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still – 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.”

The trouble is, the president can do only so much on his own – and even doing that threatens to divide the country more deeply.

For proof, take a close look at the president’s plan to unilaterally raise the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors to $10.10 an hour from the current $7.25.

It’s difficult to say exactly how many people will get a raise because of Obama’s action But Rep. Keith M. Ellison, D-Minn., recently told the Washington Post that conversations with the White House led him to believe that at least 200,000 workers will benefit.

But that’s just a very small share of the nation’s low-wage workforce. After all, the National Employment Law Project projected that about a quarter of private-sector workers in 2011 made less than $10 an hour in 2011.

The best statistics here are unfortunately out of date and inexact, but let’s just say the 1-in-4 figure stayed steady to the end of last year, when about 115 million people were employed in the private sector. Multiply that figure by a quarter, and you’ll see that Obama’s much-touted executive action would likely still leave way more than 25 million Americans working for less than $10.10 an hour.

What’s more, Obama’s executive action is likely to win him no friends in a Republican Party where he has few friends to begin with.

“What he needs to do is to work with Congress, not around Congress,” Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, said before the speech. “This sort of action tends to set a somewhat toxic environment.”

Then again, one could argue that a long-standing toxic environment in Washington is what’s prompting Obama’s go-it-alone-when-I-can approach.

Obama aides have been touting the semi-new approach as a “pen and phone” strategy in which he will sign more executive orders to further his agenda while using the bully pulpit of the presidency to carry his message to the country.

“A pen-and-phone strategy is indicative of the pervasive dysfunction of Congress,” Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, said before the speech.

Despite recent signs of progress – a bipartisan budget deal and a bipartisan Farm Bill – Higgins is right to see lethargy in the legislative branch.

Immigration reform – a top priority of most Democrats and one that many Republicans privately embrace as key to their party’s future – remains stuck in a stalemate.

Long-term solutions to the nation’s debt and its main drivers in the coming decades, Medicare and Social Security, have essentially disappeared from the D.C. discussion.

And despite dozens of failed Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” almost nothing has been finalized in Congress to actually improve it.

The trouble with Obama’s small-ball strategy, though, is that it does comparatively little to address those big issues – or even the issue that was at the heart of his speech: the economy.

For proof, let’s just compare the other executive actions that Obama promised to take to boost the economy with what he asked Congress to do.

The executive actions include:

• Establishing four new institutes to boost manufacturing.

• Conducting a governmentwide review of federal job-training programs.

• Jawboning businesses, community colleges and labor unions into expanding apprenticeship programs.

• Creating a volunteer “myRA” savings account to help people save for retirement.

Meanwhile, the larger demands for congressional action include a higher minimum wage for all workers, the tough task of immigration reform and a comprehensive infrastructure package as well as extending emergency unemployment insurance to 2 million people.

Obama also wants to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to benefit 15 million families and a change in the tax code to automatically enroll people in Individual Retirement Accounts.

Obviously, there’s no comparison between the small-style executive actions that Obama wants to take and the more expansive legislation he wants passed.

And that’s why lawmakers such as Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, think Obama should focus on working with Congress rather than going it alone.

“Overall, I’m interested in hearing the attainable shared goals Congress and the President have a realistic chance at seeing to fruition,” Reed said before the speech. “Typically in these annual speeches, we hear a laundry list of the party in the White House, but in a divided government, the best way to make progress is to find common ground and move forward. A ‘my way or the highway’ attitude won’t cut it – Americans want to hear what we can achieve together.”


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