The short answer is: not much.
Any new spending or tax changes would have to receive the green light from Congress, including infrastructure spending, job training, tax credits and other measures that Obama has touted. For all intents and purposes, his hands are tied.
Even so, Obama has made a push to expedite infrastructure projects already in the pipeline. On Wednesday, he issued an order to the Departments of Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, Commerce, Interior and Transportation, instructing them to prioritize “high-impact, job-creating infrastructure projects” to boost job growth “in the near term,” reports the National Journal. The objective would be to cut through bureaucratic red tape and speed up the process for infrastructure projects that can be completed under federal purview.
But economists who support the president’s ideas say that the White House’s push for expedition won’t be enough to have an appreciable effect on jobs. “It’s nibbling around the edges — no one’s deliberately holding things up,” adds Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
What’s more, the two agencies that have huge levers to shape the economy — the Federal Reserve and the Federal Housing Finance Agency — are legally independent from the White House. Some make the case that Obama could nudge the FHFA to do more to turn around the toxic mortgage market. “In principle,” argues Baker, “[the White House] could be more aggressive” in urging the agency to offload Fannie and Freddie-backed properties to the private market, let homeowners refinance at lower rates, or allow them to stay as renters instead. But Baker admits that such decisions are ultimately in the hands of FHFA chair Edward DeMarco, who has rebuffed pressure from the White House.
Obama is similarly constrained when it comes to the Fed. Some who support a looser monetary policy argue that White House officials could be making a stronger case for the central bank to weaken the dollar to facilitate trade and strengthen exports. But in the end, both agencies, “tend to jealously guard their authority,” as is within their mandate, notes Jared Bernstein, former chief economist to Vice President Biden.
Ultimately, Obama may do what he can to expedite the spending that’s already been approved, improving the way the government prioritizes and executes projects that create jobs. But when it comes to turning around the economy and the dismal employment rate, it may amount to little more than rearranging the deck chairs.