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Obama aims to circumvent Congress with mortgage relief, student loans

By Jim Kuhnhenn

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Oct. 24 2011 5:58 p.m. MDT

President Barack Obama gestures while speaking at a fundraiser at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, Monday, Oct. 24, 2011. Obama is on a three-day trip to the West Coast.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — President Barack Obama offered mortgage relief on Monday to hundreds of thousands of Americans, his latest attempt to ease the economic and political fallout of a housing crisis that has bedeviled him as he seeks a second term.

"I'm here to say that we can't wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job," the president declared outside a family home in Las Vegas, the epicenter of foreclosures and joblessness. "Where they won't act, I will."

Making a case for his policies and a new effort to circumvent roadblocks put up by Republican lawmakers, Obama also laid out a theme for his re-election, saying that there's "no excuse for all the games and the gridlock that we've been seeing in Washington."

"People out here don't have a lot of time or a lot of patience for some of that nonsense that's been going on in Washington," he said.

The new rules for federally guaranteed loans represent a recognition that measures the administration has taken so far on housing have not worked as well as expected.

His jobs bill struggling in Congress, Obama tried a new catchphrase — "We can't wait" — to highlight his administrative initiatives and to shift blame to congressional Republicans for lack of action to boost employment and stimulate an economic recovery.

Later in the week, Obama plans to announce measures to make it easier for college graduates to pay back federal loans. Such executive action allows Obama to address economic ills and other domestic challenges in spite of Republican opposition to most of his proposals.

While Obama has proposed prodding the economy with payroll tax cuts and increased spending on public works and aid to states, he has yet to offer a wholesale overhaul of the nation's housing programs. Economists point to the burst housing bubble as the main culprit behind the 2008 financial crisis. Meanwhile, the combination of unemployment, depressed wages and mortgages that exceed house values has continued to put a strain on the economy.

While the White House tried to avoid predicting how many homeowners would benefit from the revamped refinancing program, the Federal Housing Finance Administration estimated an additional 1 million people would qualify. Moody's Analytics say the figure could be as high as 1.6 million.

Under Obama's proposal, homeowners who are still current on their mortgages would be able to refinance no matter how much their home value has dropped below what they still owe.

"Now, over the past two years, we've already taken some steps to help folks refinance their mortgages," Obama said, listing a series of measures. "But we can do more."

At the same time, Obama acknowledged that his latest proposal will not do all that's not needed to get the housing market back on its feet. "Given the magnitude of the housing bubble, and the huge inventory of unsold homes in places like Nevada, it will take time to solve these challenges," he said.

In spelling out the plan to homeowners in a diverse, working-class Las Vegas neighborhood, Obama chose a state that provides the starkest example of the toll the housing crisis has exacted from Americans. One in every 118 homes in the state of Nevada received a foreclosure notice in September, the highest ratio in the country, according to the foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac.

Presidential spokesman Jay Carney criticized Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for proposing last week while in Las Vegas that the government not interfere with foreclosures. "Don't try to stop the foreclosure process," Romney told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "Let it run its course and hit the bottom."

"That is not a solution," Carney told reporters on Air Force One. He said Romney would tell homeowners, "'You're on your own, tough luck.'"

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