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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And President Obama has a new phrase he's been using a lot lately.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I've got a pen and I've got a phone.

MONTAGNE: That was Mr. Obama at a recent cabinet meeting. What he's talking about are the tools a president can use if Congress is not giving him what he wants. In this case the tools are executive actions and calling people together.

NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith tells us these are other avenues the president is using to pursue his economic agenda.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Since the start of the year, the president has announced three new economic promise zones: a college affordability initiative and a manufacturing research hub. These are all part of what the White House is calling a Year of Action. And they're all things that didn't require Congress to do anything, something the president makes a point of saying.

OBAMA: I am going to be working with Congress where I can to accomplish this, but I am also going to act on my own if Congress is deadlocked. I've got a pen to take executive actions where Congress won't, and I've got a telephone to rally folks around the country on this mission.

KEITH: The mission is an economic one, and something the president has talked about many times before, trying to make sure the economic recovery reaches everyone. President Obama is pressing for an extension of unemployment benefits and an increase in the minimum wage. Those things will require Congress. But encouraging public-private partnerships, that doesn't.

John Podesta recently joined the administration as a senior advisor.

JOHN PODESTA: In a couple weeks we're bringing together more than 100 CEOs who are committed to hiring the long-term unemployed, which is a significant problem that still overhangs our economy, so those are the kinds of things that the president can do without legislative action.

KEITH: Long before joining the administration, Podesta urged the president to use his executive authority to get things done. His hiring was seen as a sign the president would be taking more executive action. But using these powers is nothing new for this president, or others, for that matter. John Woolley is a professor at UC Santa Barbara, and is co-director of the Presidency Project.

JOHN WOOLLEY: He's by no means the first president to make a public point of the fact that he's doing that, and it's not the first time he's done it.

OBAMA: This morning, Secretary Napolitano announced new actions my administration will take to mend our nation's immigration policy.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: At 12:01 this morning, a major thrust of our war on terrorism began with the stroke of a pen.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: Today, I am signing an executive order to create a fair, open, streamlined system of regulatory review for our government.

KEITH: For the record, those were Presidents Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton. Two years ago, the Obama administration had what it called the We Can't Wait Initiative, which also relied on administrative actions. But generally speaking, Woolley says presidents would rather have Congress pass their ideas into law than use executive orders or other similar actions.

WOOLLEY: Presidents use it, and have often used it effectively, and - but it's not as powerful as legislation.

KEITH: On Capitol Hill, the pen-and-phone strategy is getting a mixed reception.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER: I would remind the president he also has a Constitution and an oath of office that he took.

KEITH: House Speaker John Boehner, at his weekly press conference, said the president was choosing this approach rather than looking for ways to work together.

BOEHNER: There's no reason that this year can't be a bipartisan year to work on the issue of our economy and get Americans back to work.

KEITH: And while Republicans see this as another example of executive overreach, progressive Democrats like Minnesota's Keith Ellison see opportunity. He's been pushing for the president to sign an executive order raising the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors.

REPRESENTATIVE KEITH ELLISON: Right now the federal government funds more low-wage jobs than Wal-Mart or McDonald's. There are two million workers who work for federal contractors, and in these contracts there's no provisions that there be a responsible wage paid to these people.

KEITH: The White House offered no comment on this proposal, but administration officials are doing their best to make it clear executive actions and working with Congress aren't an either/or propositions. Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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