For Obama, new focus on the piecemeal

By Jim Kuhnhenn

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 25 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Demonstrators from the 350 group hold signs as they stand on an original Keith Haring statue before President Obama's appearance in downtown San Francisco, Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2011. The 350 group are demonstrators against the Keystone XL pipeline.

Paul Sakuma, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — The president who ran for office promising sweeping change now finds himself calling for baby steps.

Blocked by congressional Republicans yet determined to show action as he seeks re-election, President Barack Obama has scaled back his ambitions from major initiatives like universal health care, to smaller-bore programs he can do on his own or that are uncontroversial enough for Republicans to go along. Think patent reform, reducing health regulations, or helping with student loans.

Even his jobs bill has been broken into what the president calls "bite-size pieces".

The new approach, which the White House is pushing under the slogan "We Can't Wait," represents at once a pragmatic shift by an administration with limited tools to fix the dismal economy, and a recognition of political reality when the opposition controls part of Congress and an election year looms.

Obama can't afford to sit around doing nothing. But circumstances won't let him do too much. The question is whether what he's aiming for will be enough — to help the economy, or his own political fortunes.

"I'd amend the bumper sticker to say 'We can't wait, but we can't do much in the meantime,'" said Paul Light, professor of public policy at New York University. "It might be politically effective because it suggests that he's doing something that Congress isn't, but in terms of actual impacts on real policy a lot of it is pretty thin."

The White House counters that Obama is well aware that the steps he's been pushing are no substitute for legislative action. But while continuing to pressure Congress to pass portions of his $447 billion jobs package of tax credits and public works spending, the president is determined to do what he can on his own, officials said.

"It would be incorrect to suggest that we are shifting from large-scale to small-scale solutions," said White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer. "We are pushing aggressively, 24-7, for a very specific, significant, economic package, the American Jobs Act. While we are doing that and while Congress is not acting we're not waiting around twiddling our thumbs. We're doing everything in our power to improve the lives of families across this country."

So on Tuesday, with Obama in California midway through a three-day West Coast swing, the White House rolled out an initiative to challenge community health centers to hire 8,000 veterans over the next three years. Officials said it was aimed at making progress in employing veterans should Congress not make such a push through tax credits, as Obama called for in his jobs bill.

On Monday, the focus was housing, with Obama picking hard-hit Las Vegas to announce a new program to help homeowners refinance at lower mortgage rates. The issue is a huge one, but the deal was limited, affecting perhaps 1 million to 1.6 million people — a fraction of the 11 million facing foreclosure.

And on Wednesday in Denver Obama was to announce plans to allow students to limit their loan payments.

These steps come after other recent announcements, including plans by the White House to exempt states from some of the strict requirements of No Child Left Behind, speed up payments to federal contractors, accelerate permits for select public works projects, and scrap certain rules for the health care industry.

Such initiatives are consequential, certainly, for the people or businesses affected. But they are modest compared to the ambitions of Obama's campaign, when he promised to change the very way Washington does business, or the initiatives from earlier in his term, such as the health care and financial regulation overhauls.

It's not to say Obama doesn't have major business he'd still like to accomplish.

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