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Obama Finds Himself Calling For Small Steps Ahead Of 2012

Barack Obama 2012

By ERICA WERNER and JIM KUHNHENN   10/25/11 04:55 PM ET   AP

LOS ANGELES -- The president who ran for office promising sweeping change now finds himself calling for baby steps.

Blocked by congressional Republicans yet determined to show action as he seeks re-election, President Barack Obama has scaled back his ambitions from major initiatives like universal health care, to smaller-bore programs he can do on his own or that are uncontroversial enough for Republicans to go along. Think patent reform, reducing health regulations, or helping with student loans.

Even his jobs bill has been broken into what the president calls "bite-size pieces".

The new approach, which the White House is pushing under the slogan "We Can't Wait," represents at once a pragmatic shift by an administration with limited tools to fix the dismal economy, and a recognition of political reality when the opposition controls part of Congress and an election year looms.

Obama can't afford to sit around doing nothing. But circumstances won't let him do too much. The question is whether what he's aiming for will be enough – to help the economy, or his own political fortunes.

"I'd amend the bumper sticker to say `We can't wait, but we can't do much in the meantime,'" said Paul Light, professor of public policy at New York University. "It might be politically effective because it suggests that he's doing something that Congress isn't, but in terms of actual impacts on real policy a lot of it is pretty thin."

The White House counters that Obama is well aware that the steps he's been pushing are no substitute for legislative action. But while continuing to pressure Congress to pass portions of his $447 billion jobs package of tax credits and public works spending, the president is determined to do what he can on his own, officials said.

"It would be incorrect to suggest that we are shifting from large-scale to small-scale solutions," said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. "We are pushing aggressively, 24-7, for a very specific, significant, economic package, the American Jobs Act. While we are doing that and while Congress is not acting we're not waiting around twiddling our thumbs. We're doing everything in our power to improve the lives of families across this country."

So on Tuesday, with Obama in California midway through a three-day West Coast swing, the White House rolled out an initiative to challenge community health centers to hire 8,000 veterans over the next three years. Officials said it was aimed at making progress in employing veterans should Congress not make such a push through tax credits, as Obama called for in his jobs bill.

On Monday, the focus was housing, with Obama picking hard-hit Las Vegas to announce a new program to help homeowners refinance at lower mortgage rates. The issue is a huge one, but the deal was limited, affecting perhaps 1 million to 1.6 million people – a fraction of the 11 million facing foreclosure.

And on Wednesday in Denver Obama was to announce plans to allow students to limit their loan payments.

These steps come after other recent announcements, including plans by the White House to exempt states from some of the strict requirements of No Child Left Behind, speed up payments to federal contractors, accelerate permits for select public works projects, and scrap certain rules for the health care industry.

Such initiatives are consequential, certainly, for the people or businesses affected. But they are modest compared to the ambitions of Obama's campaign, when he promised to change the very way Washington does business, or the initiatives from earlier in his term, such as the health care and financial regulation overhauls.

It's not to say Obama doesn't have major business he'd still like to accomplish.

Take immigration: the president has long wanted to tackle comprehensive immigration legislation to create a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants. But without Congress going along, he's limited in what he can do, as he himself acknowledged Monday night at a fundraiser at the home of Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas.

"We have a system that is broken, and we are doing everything we can administratively to try to lessen the pain and the hardship that it's causing," the president said. "...But again, I'm going to need your help. Because we're not going to be able to get this done by ourselves."

Congress has shown only rare signs of late of giving the president what he wants, agreeing recently to three long-delayed free trade deals, as well as a bill overhauling the patent system. Republicans may well agree to some elements in Obama's jobs bill, including extending payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits. But the outlook for major legislative achievements is dim for the rest of Obama's term, and so the White House intends to stay focused on highlighting congressional inaction and the steps Obama can take on his own. Announcements are planned weekly through the end of the year, sometimes on items so narrow they affect individual communities.

Obama's hardly the first president to go small.

Then-President Bill Clinton proposed dozens of small-bore programs such as supporting school uniforms in his successful 1996 re-election campaign, low-cost initiatives designed to appeal to targeted voters. George W. Bush promoted volunteering and foster care, issues that allowed him to trumpet his "compassionate conservative" credentials without spending too much political capital.

Executive power and the bully pulpit can be potent tools for presidents, ones that Congress and campaign-trail opponents can never take away. For Obama, hemmed in by a rambunctious House GOP majority and a Republican Party thirsting to take his job next year, they may be among the few strategies he has left.

"I do think he's going to continue to do more of this, and I do think the voters will say at least you're trying here," said Brendan Daly, former spokesman to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and now a public relations executive at Ogilvy Washington. "He's the president. He's got to try to do everything he can."

___

Editors Note: Kuhnhenn reported from Los Angeles; Werner from Washington

Check out this slideshow for more on Obama's reelection campaign:
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  • Campaign Announcement

    With a <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-VZLvVF1FQ&noredirect=1" target="_hplink">video</a> emailed and texted to supporters, President Barack Obama <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/04/barack-obama-2012-campaign_n_844221.html" target="_hplink">announced</a> he would be running for reelection on April 4, 2011. "We're doing this now because the politics we believe in does not start with expensive TV ads or extravaganzas, but with you -- with people organizing block by block, talking to neighbors, co-workers, and friends. And that kind of campaign takes time to build," the email read.

  • Fundraising

    In his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama raised a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/04/barack-obama-to-run-money_n_844435.html" target="_hplink">staggering $750 million</a>. The president is <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/04/barack-obama-to-run-money_n_844435.html" target="_hplink">promising to hit</a> the billion dollar mark this time around, which would make him the first president in U.S. history to do so. In his 2008 bid for the White House, Obama ran a famously grassroots campaign, securing a record four million individual donors. With a disenchanted base, the grassroots efforts in his 2012 campaign have been less successful; the campaign failed to meet its goal of 20,000 small donors by the end of September 2011, <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2011/10/obama-grassroots-challenge-fails-to-meet-goal/" target="_hplink">reported ABC</a>. Many of Obama's early supporters have become disheartened with the president, and many are in worse financial shape than they were three years ago. Losing small donors, however, still leaves Obama with the corporate backers he won over in 2008. Of his <a href="http://www.opensecrets.org/pres08/contrib.php?cid=N00009638" target="_hplink">top ten donors</a>, eight were major corporations and banks, including Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. Obama has the weight of the presidency behind him this time around. "His 2012 campaign will be a bigger, slicker machine likely to dwarf that of his eventual Republican opponent," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/04/barack-obama-to-run-money_n_844435.html" target="_hplink">Reuters reported</a>. Successful fundraising can also help the Democratic Party win back seats in the House and Senate. From the Associated Press: <blockquote>Obama gave millions from his campaign war chest to Congressional candidates in 2008. Every seat in the House will be up for grabs again in 2012, as well as one-third of the seats in the Senate, and many experts say the battle for Congress -- particularly for the Senate -- could be the real fight.</blockquote> The president has held several fundraisers this fall, reaching out to key voting blocks like African Americans and progressives. In October the president's reelection campaign announced they surpassed 1 million donors since collections began in April. The campaign and Democratic National Committee reported a total of $70 million for the third quarter.

  • Approval Ratings

    President Obama's approval ratings hit a new low at the end of October. A <a href="http://www.gallup.com/poll/150230/Obama-Job-Approval-Average-Slides-New-Low-11th-Quarter.aspx" target="_hplink">Gallup poll</a> found Obama's approval had fallen to 41 percent, a new low and a big drop from the previous quarter rating of 46.8 percent. But despite voter frustration over high unemployment rates, <a href=" http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/24/obama-approval-rating-likability_n_979076.html." target="_hplink">Obama's likability</a> as a person has kept him afloat in the polls. Americans' approval of the president has risen and fallen over the past year: It spiked after a budget deal with Republicans was reached, after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and of course again after Osama bin Laden was killed. The numbers dipped in August during the debt ceiling debacle. Check out HuffPost Pollster's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/01/06/jobapproval-obama_n_726319.html" target="_hplink">interactive tool</a> tracking Obama's approval ratings through time.

  • GOP Candidates

    The current pool of candidates in the Republican primary race may be one of the best things President Obama has going for him in his re-election bid. The GOP has been hesitant to rally around any one of the contenders, and a number of high-profile Republicans decided against a run. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has been a steady frontrunner, but hasn't garnered widespread excitement from members of his party. Instead Republicans urged New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to make a bid for the White House, and many conservatives were hopeful Sarah Palin would join the race. (Both decided not to run.) Romney has picked up key endorsements from Christie and Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. However a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/13/republican-endorsements_n_1009352.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost analysis</a> shows that the number of GOP endorsements is much lower than is usual at this point in the race, indicating the Republican party is far from a consensus. Attendees at a Republican National Committee (RNC) meeting in May found the field of candidates "uninspiring," <a href="http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/05/20/gop-leaders-restless-about-2012-candidates-but-ready-to-take-on-obama/" target="_hplink">CNN reported</a>. "I am not seeing lightning striking for any of the candidates at this point," said Nevada Republican Chairman Bob List at the event. "But Republicans are eager to find the right candidate to coalesce around."

  • American Jobs Act

    President Obama announced the <a href="http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/09/08/fact-sheet-american-jobs-act" target="_hplink">American Jobs Act </a> in September, a sweeping $447 billion bill to boost the country's sinking economy. The White House says the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/24/obama-jobs-plan_n_978956.html" target="_hplink">bill would create</a> 1.9 million new jobs -- just a fraction of the 15 million unemployed Americans. Republicans and some Democrats oppose Obama's plan to pay for the jobs bill by hiking taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans. Though many aspects of the legislation had been <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/14/obama-jobs-bill-2011-republican-support_n_1011699.html" target="_hplink">previously supported</a> by Republicans in Congress, the bill was blocked in the Senate. Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/16/debbie-wasserman--schultz-failure-economy_n_1013838.html" target="_hplink">accused the Republican Party</a> of purposefully allowing the economy to struggle in order to score political points for the 2012 elections. Obama has vowed to continue to fight to pass individual pieces of the bill, beginning with a provision to protect the jobs of teachers, firefighters and police. The Senate voted down the provision in October.

  • Mobilizing The Base

    As campaign season heats up President Obama has been reaching out to the key voting blocs the helped get him elected in 2008, such as African Americans and liberals. In September the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/25/obama-to-congressional-bl_n_979708.html" target="_hplink">president addressed</a> the Congressional Black Caucus at an annual awards dinner and called on blacks to "put on your marching shoes" to follow him into battle. "I need your help," he said. "Shake it off. Stop complainin'. Stop grumblin'. Stop cryin'. We are going to press on. We have work to do." Though Obama was speaking about the economy and his jobs bill, the undercurrent of the speech was that without African American support he might not secure a second term. Black leaders, as well as progressives generally, have been increasingly critical of Obama for giving away too much in talks with Republicans, and not doing enough to fight black unemployment, which is nearly double the national average, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/25/obama-to-congressional-bl_n_979708.html" target="_hplink">the <em>Associated Press</em> reports</a>. Obama also took a trip to the West Coast to speak to progressive Democrats, who have been growing disenchanted with the president. Hoping to reinvigorate the liberal voting bloc, Obama said during fundraisers up and down the West Coast that the GOP vision of government would "cripple America." The president's rhetoric has shifted from a spirit of compromise, to attacks on conservatives, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/25/obama-gop-cripple-america_n_980219.html" target="_hplink">reports the <em>Associated Press</em></a>.

  • First Term Accomplishments

    A run-down of the president's accomplishments and how the most controversial among them were received. <strong>Health Care Reform:</strong> The Affordable Care Act is arguably Obama's most contentious legislative accomplishment. Most Democrats praise the law for aiming to provide all Americans with access to affordable health care, while the Republican party wishes to repeal the law, saying it ups taxes and government spending, while increasing government control over health care. Some question the constitutionality of an individual mandate. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/01/supreme-court-health-care-law_n_990289.html" target="_hplink">The Supreme Court </a> will be the judge of that. The president faced the most sustained criticism from his base during the health care debate, as he <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/10/24/leaderless-senate-pushes_n_332844.html" target="_hplink">negotiated away</a> and belittled the public insurance option, and made <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/08/13/internal-memo-confirms-bi_n_258285.html" target="_hplink">back-room deals</a> with major industry players. <strong>Economic Recovery:</strong> Obama's $789 billion <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/11/stimulus-deal-obama-team_n_165912.html" target="_hplink">economic stimulus package</a> has faced scrutiny from Republicans since passing Congress with little Republican support. However, supporters credit the legislation -- one of the largest in history -- with pulling the economy back from the brink after the 2008 financial collapse and preventing a second Great Depression. Republicans criticized the plan for relying too heavily on spending rather than tax cuts, though a third of the package consisted of the latter. As early as February 2009, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/02/09/is-stimulus-too-small_n_165076.html" target="_hplink">HuffPost explained </a>why the stimulus was too small and would fall short of its goal. <strong>Withdrawing from Iraq:</strong> Fulfilling a campaign promise to end the war in Iraq, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/21/obama-iraq-troop-withdrawal_n_1024108.html" target="_hplink">Obama announced Oct. 21</a> that he will pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. <strong>DADT Repeal:</strong> Obama repealed the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/20/barack-obama-dont-ask-dont-tell-repeal-statement_n_971662.html" target="_hplink">Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy</a> that forbid gay men and women from serving openly in the U.S. military, a law he called "discriminatory." The repeal was a historic moment for the gay rights movement. Some Republican candidates have promised to reinstate the policy. <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/30/us/politics/30ledbetter-web.html" target="_hplink">Fair Pay Act:</a> The first bill Obama signed into law is aimed at achieving equal pay for women. <strong>Stem Cell Research:</strong> Obama overturned the Bush-era ban on funding embryonic stem cell research, offering federal support for scientists researching cures for disease. <strong>New START treaty:</strong> Obama signed a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/12/03/jon-kyls-decadelong-obses_n_791738.html" target="_hplink">bilateral treaty </a>between the U.S. and Russia that aims to cut the number of nuclear weapons around the world in half. <a href="http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2010/12/president-obama-signs-child-nutrition-act/21903/" target="_hplink"><strong>Child Nutrition Act:</strong></a> Obama signed into law a bill to combat childhood obesity and promote child nutrition in schools. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/04/obama-sign-food-safety-bill_n_804053.html" target="_hplink"><strong>Food Safety Act:</strong></a> The food safety act to help prevent deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness was the first major overhaul of America's food safety system since the 1930s. <strong>Wall Street Reform:</strong> Obama's financial industry reform bill left the major banks in tact, but promised to create a mechanism whereby failing institutions would be seized and unwound by federal regulators. That element of the law has yet to be tested. The signature achievement of the bill was the creation of the Consumer Financial Product Bureau, an agency crafted by consumer advocate and now-Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, which was fought energetically by Wall Street, the GOP and powerful Democrats. <strong>Supreme Court Justices:</strong> Obama appointed two justices to the United States Supreme Court: Justice Sonya Sotomayor in 2009, the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court, and Justice Elena Kagan in 2010.

  • Killing Osama bin Laden And Ending The War On Terror

    In May 2011 President Obama announced that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/05/01/osama-bin-laden-dead-killed_n_856091.html" target="_hplink">Osama Bin Laden had been killed</a> by a U.S. operation launched in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The president said U.S. intelligence operatives received a tip of bin Laden's hideout and took action. "Justice has been done," Obama said <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZNYmK19-d0U" target="_hplink">from the White House</a>. Upon taking office Obama distanced himself from the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/10/obamas-war-on-terror-awlaki_n_1004161.html" target="_hplink">"War on Terror"</a> he inherited from his predecessor George W. Bush. He ordered an end to the phrase, instead calling it a "Global Contingency Operation." Despite the name change, the assault on civil liberties that was central to Bush's "War on Terror" continues under President Obama's "operation." He pledged to bring the Iraq war to an end, and has withdrawn roughly 120,000 troops since taking office. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/21/obama-iraq-troop-withdrawal_n_1024108.html" target="_hplink">Obama announced</a> Oct. 21 that he will pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year, fulfilling a long-held campaign promise.

  • Budget Fights With Republicans

    The 2009 stimulus negotiations, in which Republicans got several hundred billion dollars worth of tax cuts without agreeing to vote for the bill, were a sign of things to come. Negotiations over the 2011 budget reached a climax in April, with a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/14/budget-deal-passes-house-_n_849334.html" target="_hplink">showdown</a> between Republicans and Democrats that threatened to shut down the federal government if the two parties could not reach a deal. At the eleventh hour, Congress pushed through a deal that was hailed as a <a href="http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0411/52864.html" target="_hplink">victory for Republicans</a>, because of the spending cuts Democrats agreed to. Democrats strongly opposed any <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/09/budget-battle-gop-wins-round-one_n_847101.html" target="_hplink">cuts to spending</a>. Republicans initially asked for $61 billion in cuts. Democrats later refused to go over $33 billion. The deal settled on $38.5 billion in cuts. Republicans had also tried to force social issues as part of the deal, hoping to defund Planned Parenthood and to stop government regulations on greenhouse gases, without success. However these and deeper cuts to spending are likely to be issues in the next budget fight. Months later Democrats and Republicans again went head to head over the <a href="http://motherjones.com/mojo/2011/06/whats-happening-debt-ceiling-explained" target="_hplink">raising the debt ceiling</a>. The U.S. government reached its borrowing limit - $14.3 trillion - and risked defaulting on payments if they didn't if the debt limit wasn't raised. Republicans refused to raise the limit without drastic cuts, which Democrats chastised political grandstanding that cause the country to default. Again a last-minute deal was struck in which Republicans agreed to raise the debt ceiling enough to keep borrowing through 2013 in exchange for spending cuts. A super-committee was created to come up with a plan to trim the federal budget by an additional $2.4 trillion. In September the U.S. narrowly averted a government shutdown once more over <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-503544_162-20112238-503544.html" target="_hplink">negotiations on a spending bill</a>. Republicans wanted to offset funding for disaster relief with cuts; Democrats refused. In the end Republicans caved on the cuts, but got Democrats to agree to give less cash to FEMA than they had wanted. The budget fight isn't over yet. In November Congress will have to figure out the rest of the 2012 federal budget. At that point the super committee created to save 1.2 trillion from the budget will reveal its plan.

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Filed by Elyse Siegel  |