NPR logo Obama Still Has Many Muscles To Flex: Progressives

Obama Still Has Many Muscles To Flex: Progressives

Progressives said President Obama can avoid the fate of his Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton who in 1996 focused on small initiatives like school uniforms after his party lost control of Congress. Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo hide caption

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Wilfredo Lee/AP Photo

President Obama's ambitious legislative agenda may be stymied on Capitol Hill come January when Republicans take over the House and increase their numbers in the Senate.

But his progressive pals at the Center for American Progress argued Tuesday that the nation's CEO still has plenty of executive power to deliver "real change" in the next two years in the areas including jobs, education, clean energy, health care and consumer protection.

And, they insist, he doesn’t have to be relegated to the small ball tactics, like the school uniforms initiative undertaken by President Clinton after his party's mid-term drubbing in 1994.

The Constitution allows the president plenty of opportunity to "push the country to a better place," said John Podesta, who heads the center, in an afternoon conference call with reporters.

Minding, of course, says Podesta, who was Clinton's chief of staff and head of Obama's transition team, "constraint under law and restraint under wisdom."

The president, obviously, can use his veto pen - and especially if Republicans pass legislation that would overturn health care legislation. But he can also have a strong hand in writing regulations, the center's experts argue, to implement that legislation, as well as the new financial regulations measure.

"The president has used his first two years in office to pass historic legislation" - only the first step of policy change, says Neera Tanden, the center's chief operating officer.

Implementation is the next process, she says, and one that shifts authority out of Congress and into a realm where Obama can wield much authority.

However, the way forward laid out by the center Tuesday, however, reflects the very real limits a weakened Obama will face in the final two years of his term, and as he prepares his 2012 re-election run.

The "Power of the President" report, which proposes 30 initiatives or actions the president could undertake, is peppered with words like focus, partner, promote, create, streamline and mitigate.

Suggestions in the report range from bringing hunters and anglers together to talk about wildlife and climate change, to installing solar energy collectors on the roofs of U.S. Air Force hangers.

The center suggests that the president could increase scrutiny of agency spending, and "rebalance" the nation's Afghanistan strategy.

It suggests that the president use his Constitutional authority to make things happen through executive orders, rule making, managing agencies, creating public-private partnerships, commanding the armed forces, and diplomacy.

It isn't, certainly, the big legislative agenda the president arrived with in 2008, but that's to be expected, Podesta says, who defended Clinton's post-mid-term agenda as successful in protecting federal land, pushing through medical privacy rules, working to reduce teen pregnancy, and connecting schools to the Internet.

He also noted that that exerting executive authority is a time-honored presidential prerogative: President George W. Bush used his muscle to, for example, limit embryonic stem cell use and prevent the implementation of stricter tailpipe emission rules in California.

For Obama, the debate over the past two years, Podesta says, was focused on big legislative change.

"Now it's in the doing," he says.