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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