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How Much Can One President Really Do to Change the Country?

How Much Can One President Really Do to Change the Country?

Since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, the limits of the three separate but equal branches of government arrangement codified in the United States Constitution have been pushed to the extreme.

The most productive years of his presidency are still the first two, where he had the support of the majority of the public as well as congressional allies buoyed by a Democratic majority. Much was accomplished during that brief period, with the most notable pieces of legislation being the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

After the midterm elections of 2012, his policy agenda has been repeatedly stymied by an intransigent Republican opposition and Republican majority in the House which has held the nation hostage on more than one occasion.  When he was reelected, there was some hope that with the definitive declaration of support from the public, there would be a more conciliatory tone coming from the chambers. His first State of the Union address of his new term last year focused on the desire of Americans to get things done and highlighted the bold initiatives yet to be accomplished.

A year later, there has been no improvement.

In his sixth State of the Union address last month, President Obama had a much more subdued tone, seemingly filled with the acceptance that there was little he could do to move anything forward in the current climate. Amid veiled admonishments of the unprecedented obstruction, President Obama continued to remind the American people of what needed and could be done. Then he offered the one thing he has plenty of: Hope.

In a take charge attitude, President Obama vowed to lead with or without Congress. “America does not stand still, and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,” he announced to applause from (the Democratic section of) the chamber. He then laid out seven specific areas in which he would take the lead to move forward to help with our country’s job, economic, education, and environmental needs.

The most attention was given to his promise to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. This will only apply to federal contractors, and only to new hires. He admitted in his speech that it will be up to Congress to increase the minimum wage for the millions of Americans who are most in need of one.

One initiative that will help more lower and middle class Americans is the MyRA retirement savings plan. The program is a starter 401(k) plan for employees who work at companies that don’t offer one. For those with incomes less than $191,000 a year, they can open an account for as little as $25 and contribute as little as $5 a month via payroll deduction, for a maximum of $15,000 dollars.

Unlike a regular 401(k), this savings plan is not dependent on employer (which also means no employer contributions) and can go with the employees as they change jobs. The savings plan is backed by the government, similar to what federal employees have via their Thrift Savings Plan. This allows the President to direct the U.S. Treasury via executive action to develop the program and hire a private sector firm to manage the fund.

Between holding summits on policies for working families, directing Joe Biden to review federal job training programs and meeting with various business leaders, elected officials and philanthropists to tackle the issues of unemployment and Pre-K education, the remaining executive actions are bereft of any real action. Only the streamlining of the permit process by cutting the red tape to encourage the construction of buildings that rely on natural gas seem the most concrete of the remaining executive initiatives.

The question is, however, how much can one president really do?

It is obvious this president wants to get things done. These plans are laudable for the sincere attempt to move forward in a morass of political infighting that has paralyzed the legislative process. President Obama has long be known as someone who has respected the founding fathers’ desire for three equal branches of government, and has insisted that the work come from Congress. In the end, he is limited by the very Constitution that he talked about and its brilliant built-in checks and balances.

So while the President continues to lead with these key executive actions, not much can be done unless Congress works alongside him. As the past five years have shown, there is little hope in that happening without a major change within the Congressional ranks. Even the President hinted that Congress is a lost cause in his speech when he said, “To every mayor, governor, state legislator in America, I say, you don’t have to wait for Congress to act; Americans will support you if you take this on. And as a chief executive, I intend to lead by example.”

Perhaps it’s now up to the American people that support the President’s initiatives to follow his lead. It is an election year, after all.

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Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images via Thinkstock

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103 comments

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11:42PM PST on Feb 9, 2014

Nothing worst than not having a back bone !

9:11PM PST on Feb 8, 2014

Susan T, it wouldn’t matter to me whether Obama is black, white or green. But it does appear to matter to the GOP members of the House who have been against him from the start. My (mis)representative Marco Rubio has made it his goal to block everything Obama wants to do. Everything. Most recently like helping the out of work citizens of Florida who foolishly voted for Rubio because they actually believed he’d keep his promise and create jobs. Now that they’re out of work, his response is basically, “Tough! No unemployment because you’re too lazy to go out and get a job.” He hasn’t grasped the reality that THERE ARE NO JOBS.
Like I said before, there are Right Wingers who don’t like a Black Man in the White House, and it’s hard to accomplish much when you’re blocked at every turn.

8:59PM PST on Feb 8, 2014

Some good comments here - thanks

8:10PM PST on Feb 7, 2014

HAHAHAAHAHAAHAHAHAAH right offf of the Fox News Channel with misinformation. You never dissapoint David

3:17PM PST on Feb 7, 2014

This Con man in Chief laments on how many more people would have jobs if the government just went in the hole a little further. Absolutely no context on timeframe. i.e. I could have a much better standard of living now if I spent every dime I made and took out loans, but my retirement would suck. Same thing here -- they speak of the economic conditions here and now as being all that matters -- absolutely no considering of actually having to pay off the current $191,000 of total debt per citizen:
http://www.usdebtclock.org

Then, the CBO's report this week that Obamacare will cost the equivalent of 2.3 million jobs and drive many more from full-time employment to part-time employment.

9:09AM PST on Feb 7, 2014

Interesting that the Republican party made it clear from the beginning that they would do whatever it takes to make sure this president failed and they have absolutely stood by their words throughout his presidency. If they REALLY believed that he would destroy this county with his ideas and changes, they should have backed him and let him make the changes he wanted - then if the country really did suffer because of his changes they would deserve the right to claim that he was a terrible leader. Instead they have done everything they can to block anything and everything he has stood behind and at the same time claimed to the world that he is destroying our county. What a bunch of wimp chickens! BOOOCK-bock-bock-bock-bock!!!

8:41AM PST on Feb 7, 2014

One thing for sure. If it pleases the wealthy 1%, thy will be done.

8:28AM PST on Feb 7, 2014

Presidents are just puppets... there are several levels of governing bodies above the Presidential level... who tell the president what to do. President Obama gets A for effort though.

7:58AM PST on Feb 7, 2014

OK, I gave him time, the benefit of the doubt, I thought maybe he could unite this country...half white/half black.
he has been nothing but divisive untransparent and not good. I feel very sad because I did think he could make a "change". BS. I did not vote for him but I thought maybe I was wrong....well I am not wrong,
so if he was white would you all still love him?

7:48AM PST on Feb 7, 2014

At this Point in Time I don't believe he has the leadership skills and vision to do much.

I am very sorry I lost all faith in our President when he passed HIS HC LAW INTO LAW prior to even reading His Own LAW!

Unfortunately such says too much relative to his skills and abilities!

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