As President Obama visits theFlorida Everglades on Wednesday to give a speech on climate change, the White House is announcing a package of eight different executive actions, implemented by seven government agencies, to “protect the people and places that climate change puts at risk.”
The announcement contains no executive orders, sweeping directives, legislative proposals or bill signings.
Instead, the actions are smaller-bore staples of Obama’s “pen-and-phone” strategy that shows no sign of letting up: a report on the value of parks to the environment, a proclamation declaring National Parks Week, and conservation efforts in Florida, Hawaii, Puget Sound and the Great Lakes.
“This is an example of how the administration can continue to advance what we consider to be and what the world considers to be a top priority, which is dealing with the impacts of climate change in a way that makes communities more resilient,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
But White House officials say such actions are also part of a broader political strategy to stay on offense and have the new Republican Congress respond to the president’s agenda — and not the other way around.
“Since the election, the president has had a pretty explicit strategy,” said Brian Deese, a senior Obama adviser. “And it has consisted of trying stay on offense, trying to push where he can to move the agenda through executive action. You’re going to keep seeing the president in that posture going forward.”
“Executive action” — a phrase Obama never uttered publicly in the first two and a half years of his presidency — has now become part of his daily lexicon.
The actions can take many forms, from formal executive orders and presidential memoranda to much more routine and bureaucratic changes. That makes any definitive count of lower-level executive actions difficult.
But by one measure, such policy rollouts are actually increasing in pace. The White House often announces executive actions with a fact sheet from the press office, and those spiked last year during what Obama called the “Year of Action.” The White House issued 228 fact sheets in 2014, more than the first three years of his presidency combined.
This year, the White House has already issued three more fact sheets than last year at the same time.
The Obama strategy on executive actions closely parallels that of the Clinton White House. In Bill Clinton’s last two years in office, chief of staff John Podesta launched what would become known as “Project Podesta.” In an effort to flex presidential authority, Podesta canvassed executive agencies for actions Clinton could take without going to Congress.
Podesta came back to the Obama White House last year, and when he departed forHillary Clinton’s presidential campaign his responsibility for climate policy fell to Deese.
“One of the ways that the White House plays a role is to think forward and challenge the agencies to be proactive in saying, ‘What more can we do? And what more can we do that’s consistent with certain themes?’ ” Deese said.
This year, the major theme is “middle-class economics.” The Obama White House has also used executive action to lower mortgage insurance premiums and regulate retirement accounts. And coming soon: new overtime regulations from the Department of Labor, which Obama ordered in a presidential memorandum last year.
The actions often don’t originate in the White House. “Sometimes an agency has a particular initiative that they want to push that would benefit from getting a higher profile, or the president making a very concrete call to action,” Deese said.
Executive action wasn’t part of Obama’s strategy when he first came into office.
“I sort of see it as flowing from the failure of the grand bargain negotiations in 2011,” said Andrew Rudalevige, a presidency scholar at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. That’s when Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, tried to reach a permanent budget agreement but instead came up with a “Supercommittee” that failed to reach agreement, triggering across-the-board budget cuts.
“He gets shellacked in the midterm, and then sets up a position where he could actually cooperate — a triangulation strategy, channeling Bill Clinton,” Rudalevige said. “Instead of channeling Bill Clinton, he started channeling Harry Truman taking on the ‘Do Nothing’ Congress.”
In the fall of 2011, Obama went on a “We Can’t Wait” road tour, meant to put pressure on Congress leading up to the 2012 elections. It was during that tour that Obama used the words “executive action” in public for the first time as president.
“I’ve told my administration to keep looking every single day for actions we can take without Congress, steps that can save consumers money, make government more efficient and responsive, and help heal the economy,” Obama said in an October 2011 speech in Las Vegas. “And we’re going to be announcing these executive actions on a regular basis.”
In the 2014 congressional election cycle, that strategy was called the “Year of Action.” It brought executive actions on climate, immigration and Cuba.
“I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone. And that’s all I need,” he said in 2014. “Because with a pen, I can take executive actions.”
But as the Obama presidency heads into its final furlong, White House officials say their focus is increasingly on getting all those executive actions implemented.
“We will continue to announce more exec actions, but the president is also holding us to account to execute on the executive orders we’ve already announced,” said White House economic adviser Jeff Zients.