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Obama’s bite-size initiatives reminiscent of Clinton reelection

By Anne E. Kornblut,

The series of economic initiatives announced by President Obama in recent days reflects a strategic and tactical shift that White House officials hope will guide the president’s governing and political agenda in the months ahead.

The new effort, carried out through unilateral executive actions, was agreed upon weeks ago and is strongly reminiscent of a successful campaign deployed by Bill Clinton in the run-up to his 1996 reelection.

Almost every day this week, Obama rolled out a program aimed at some troubled sector of the economy: mortgage relief for homeowners Monday, tax credits to spur job growth for veterans Tuesday, college loan relief for students Wednesday, regulatory and information shortcuts for small businesses Friday.

The plan-a-day strategy is an approach designed to portray Obama as decisive as the White House complains about Congress’s failure to pass his jobs bill. Senior administration aides said they expected the effort to continue as long as Congress balks at his proposals.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) predicted that the president’s effort will fail, saying that the economy will need more help to recover than can be accomplished through unilateral White House action.

“If the president wants to put people back to work, he’s going to have to engage in the legislative process and work with us to find common ground. It’s that simple,” Boehner said. A Boehner aide said the speaker had not been notified in advance about the executive actions.

Obama’s focus on immediate action to address problems is also intended to provide a contrast with his prospective Republican rivals, who are waging a heated battle over what they would do in January 2013. Obama officials said that planning for his second-term agenda is in its infancy. They added that advisers are just starting to work on the president’s 2012 State of the Union address, which will lay the foundation for the broader issues agenda in the campaign.

“That’s part and parcel of having the responsibility of governing,” said longtime adviser David Axelrod. “When you’re the incumbent president, you have to deal with the day-to-day challenges of the country; you have to act. You don’t have the luxury of sitting back and waiting.”

Mark Penn, who ran the successful 1996 Clinton campaign, praised the new Obama approach. “I thought what he did with the mortgages was the most Clintonesque thing I’ve seen,” Penn said. “You’ve got to repeat that 100 times for people to notice, because it doesn’t have the advantage of going to a joint session of Congress, but it does send the right message to the right people.”

In Clinton’s case, the initiatives were derided for being small — “McIssues” — and for pandering to the political center. Yet they worked, helping him overcome the doubts about his presidency raised by the sweeping Republican victory in the 1994 midterm election.

Even Republicans who question the economic effectiveness of the Obama initiatives acknowledge that they could be a politically smart move.

“There’s a real question about whether the programs are big enough in scale to affect the economy in a significant way,” said Steve Schmidt, who managed Republican Sen. John McCain’s campaign in 2008. “I’m very skeptical of that. That being said, these are all initiatives that test well among the center-right, the center-left, the middle of the electorate, whose numbers he has seen collapse on him. They were a vital part of his electoral victory in 2008.”

The executive actions unveiled this week grew out of an informal working group at the White House that is continuing to search for next steps, officials said. The administration is scanning agencies for more executive actions, an acknowledgment that, at least for now, the president is stymied by the legislative branch — just as Clinton was thwarted by a Republican Congress in the run-up to his reelection.

Nancy-Ann DeParle, the deputy chief of staff for policy, is leading the effort to find polices that do not require congressional approval, aides said. Bruce Reed, who is chief of staff to Vice President Biden, White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler and Stephanie Cutter, a top adviser, were other early participants.

White House officials said Obama is not abandoning large ambitions in favor of smaller ones or becoming, as Clinton was sometimes known, an “incremental president.” Obama is still pressing for his $447 billion jobs package, they said.

But the Obama White House is beginning to deploy the technocratic skill that Clinton became famous for, and the imprint of the Clinton veterans on Obama’s staff members is apparent. At least two of them — including Reed, who was director of Clinton’s Domestic Policy Council — helped guide Clinton’s incremental successes more than a decade ago.

“We developed a process by necessity in the wake of the ’94 elections where we had to spend a lot more time focusing on executive actions,” Reed told the New York Times in 1997. Gene Sperling, who served as director of the National Economic Council in the Clinton White House and is in that role again now, said at the time that Clinton had developed a “broader way of thinking about the presidency, not just what you can do legislatively.”

After months of conflict, White House officials sounded relieved to be discussing action on the part of the president. “The president has dramatically shifted the terms of the debate in Washington to jobs and specifically his jobs plan,” said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. “So much so that House Republicans are now tripping over each other to talk about parts of the president’s plan they’ve tried to pass.”

The bite-size initiatives — although the White House hates that term — are helping solve an inherent problem with Obama’s reelection campaign: With the economy in crisis, the president is not in a position to talk about his sweeping plans for a second term.

Obama has barely mentioned a second term, except to say, as he did on the road this week, that he has fulfilled 60 percent of his 2008 campaign promises and will “get the other 40 percent done in the next five years.”

Obama is expected to press forward on immigration if he wins reelection. Some other potential priorities — such as making changes to Social Security and Medicare, pursuing peace in the Middle East or perhaps endorsing gay marriage — would be politically risky for him to discuss in an election season.

Axelrod disputed that Republicans have an advantage by being able to turn voters’ attention to a bigger agenda than the one being laid out by Obama.

“Those guys are talking about what they would do on Day One, but all they’re saying is that they would repeal everything he’s done,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot of visionary talk over there.”

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