January 21

“I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone,” President Obama told his Cabinet, announcing that he wouldn’t just be “waiting for legislation” from the obstructionist Congress to push his agenda. The announcement buoyed progressives, who have long urged the president to act boldly on his own authority, and provided new fuel for right-wing fulminations about “dictatorship” and “tyranny.”

To kick off the strategy, Obama traveled last week to North Carolina to launch one of his “manufacturing innovation hubs”; convened university presidents to talk about making college more affordable; announced the first group of “promise zones,” designed to focus federal attention on at risk communities; and scheduled a meeting with CEOs to gain commitments to hiring the long-term unemployed.

Obama’s pledge echoes his “We Can’t Wait” campaign leading into the 2012 elections, in which the president similarly announced a range of executive initiatives. That effort mostly demonstrated how difficult it is for any executive action to gain public attention.

Doing good is its own reward, of course. And activist communities may pay attention even when the general public doesn’t. The president’s “mini-DREAM Act,” limiting the deportation of young, undocumented immigrants, gained widespread notice among Latinos and may well have contributed to Obama’s reelection.

This time, the president has bolstered the effort by bringing John Podesta into the White House as a senior adviser. Podesta, President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff and founder of the Center for American Progress, virtually ensures dramatic action on climate change.

In what other areas could the president act that would truly break through? His upcoming State of the Union address provides the best forum he will have. He shouldn’t offer a laundry list of actions, but he could announce a few dramatic and long-overdue actions:

Launch a “good jobs” initiative: One central theme of the president’s State of the Union address will undoubtedly be inequality, which the president has called the “defining challenge of our time.” He will likely once more call on Congress to raise the minimum wage.

The president might give this call bite by issuing a “good jobs” executive order. The federal government exceeds even Wal-Mart and McDonalds combined as our country’s largest low-wage job creator, funding nearly 2 million poverty-wage jobs through federal contracts, leases and loans. These are the workers who clean such federal buildings as the U.S. Capitol, serve food in cafeterias and sew military uniforms for our troops. They are employed by contractors, often large companies that reward their CEOs with outlandish pay while squeezing their workers. A recent Senate report showed these contractors also frequently trample labor laws.

The NAACP, the Congressional Progressive Caucus, senators such as Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and religious and labor leaders have urged the president to issue an executive order that would ensure that taxpayer dollars go only to “high-road” employers that pay their employees a living wage and respect labor and employment laws. This would lift hard-working American families out of poverty, and it would put even more pressure on House Republican leaders who have refused to allow a vote on a minimum-wage hike favored by the vast majority of Americans.

Expand access to the vote: In its recent bipartisan budget agreement, Congress shamelessly prohibited “any funding to require that contractors bidding for federal contracts disclose campaign contributions.” Apparently, the parties agree that the thinly disguised bribery that is our big-money politics should continue in the dark.

The president can’t overturn that law, but he can act in response to states that have urged federal agencies to provide Americans with access to voter registration materials. He could use this occasion to denounce the efforts across the country to constrict voting rights, while announcing that he will encourage all states to empower federal agencies to provide registration materials to all.

Order nuclear weapons off hair-trigger status: To this day, the United States and Russia have several hundred missiles ready to launch at a moment’s notice. Even George W. Bush considered this an “unnecessary vestige of Cold War confrontation.” George H.W. Bush unilaterally took hundreds of missiles and bombers off alert. Obama could make good on his own promise and issue a long-overdue executive order that would make the planet far less dangerous.

Ann Telnaes animation: Mission accomplished for the NRA. (Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)

Presidents often have no choice but to act on their authority. Too often, secret and aggressive bureaucracies, such as the National Security Agency, drive their actions. Obama’s pledge to use his pen and his phone could help the president to lead more forcefully in areas vital to the country and popular with the people.

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