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.
Take immigration: the president has long wanted to tackle comprehensive immigration legislation to create a pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants. But without Congress going along, he's limited in what he can do, as he himself acknowledged Monday night at a fundraiser at the home of Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas.
"We have a system that is broken, and we are doing everything we can administratively to try to lessen the pain and the hardship that it's causing," the president said. "...But again, I'm going to need your help. Because we're not going to be able to get this done by ourselves."
Congress has shown only rare signs of late of giving the president what he wants, agreeing recently to three long-delayed free trade deals, as well as a bill overhauling the patent system. Republicans may well agree to some elements in Obama's jobs bill, including extending payroll tax cuts and unemployment benefits. But the outlook for major legislative achievements is dim for the rest of Obama's term, and so the White House intends to stay focused on highlighting congressional inaction and the steps Obama can take on his own. Announcements are planned weekly through the end of the year, sometimes on items so narrow they affect individual communities.
Obama's hardly the first president to go small.Comment on this story
Then-President Bill Clinton proposed dozens of small-bore programs such as supporting school uniforms in his successful 1996 re-election campaign, low-cost initiatives designed to appeal to targeted voters. George W. Bush promoted volunteering and foster care, issues that allowed him to trumpet his "compassionate conservative" credentials without spending too much political capital.
Executive power and the bully pulpit can be potent tools for presidents, ones that Congress and campaign-trail opponents can never take away. For Obama, hemmed in by a rambunctious House GOP majority and a Republican Party thirsting to take his job next year, they may be among the few strategies he has left.
"I do think he's going to continue to do more of this, and I do think the voters will say at least you're trying here," said Brendan Daly, former spokesman to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and now a public relations executive at Ogilvy Washington. "He's the president. He's got to try to do everything he can."
Editors Note: Kuhnhenn reported from Los Angeles; Werner from Washington