Obama on the move in a bid to spur a sputtering agenda

President Obama has lately been front and center, pushing one new initiative after another – and even taking care to include Republicans. But motion does not guarantee progress.

Larry Downing / Reuters
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden talk about energy policy with governors in the State Dining Room of the White House, Wednesday.

Say this for President Obama: He’s keeping his feet moving.

Yes, the push for healthcare reform legislation has come to a stop, blocked by Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts special Senate election. Yes, other big administration priorities likely will be derailed by the Democrats’ loss of their filibuster-proof, 60-vote Senate margin.

Mr. Obama admitted as much on Tuesday when he said the Senate might pass an energy bill this year without cap-and-trade limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, long a centerpiece of the White House environmental agenda.

“It’s conceivable that’s where the Senate ends up,” said Obama, speaking at a town hall meeting Tuesday in Nashua, N.H.

Just keep moving

But in the face of a new political environment, Obama seems quickly to have shifted his governing strategy. It’s a classic White House recovery move. Call it “The Theory of Constant Motion.”

Thus, leading up to Obama’s State of the Union address on Jan. 27, administration officials each day highlighted a different proposal the speech would contain, one by one. First came measures to help the middle class. Then it was a three-year freeze on nondefense discretionary spending. And so on.

Pivoting out of the speech itself, the White House has put Obama front and center to push those policies. The president answered questions on YouTube. He traveled to Baltimore to parry with GOP lawmakers.

In New Hampshire he highlighted his push to allocate $30 billion in TARP money to community banks, for small business loans. In Washington on Wednesday, Obama was at it again, unveiling a plan for boosting the production of biofuels.

The new strategy seeks to put the US on track to produce 36 billion gallons of ethanol, biodiesel, and other crop-based fuels by 2022. The United States has so far fallen short of its biofuel goals, acknowledged a White House report, due to lack of an “explicit” government management plan for the resource, among other things.

On Wednesday, Obama also announced a new task force to study the role of coal in US energy needs. He unveiled this new stripped-down approach to energy changes after a White House meeting with coal-state governors.

Brownie points for bipartisan effort?

Clearly, the president was hoping to win some beyond-the-Beltway support for his stalled energy bill, while simultaneously presenting himself as willing to reach out to Republican, as well as to Democratic, statehouse leaders.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to work together in a bipartisan way to get this done,” Obama told the governors.

Overall, the White House motion strategy is a means to take the natural attention point of the State of the Union and extend it as much as possible.

It’s an obvious approach, but that does not make it easy. In recent days, the administration at least has carried it off enough so that the “Whither Democrats?” headlines have abated, somewhat.

With the shock of the Brown election abating, Obama now is trying to rally his party for the year ahead. He told the Senate Democratic Policy Committee Issues Conference on Wednesday that the lesson from Massachusetts should not be to do nothing.

“All that’s changed in the last two weeks is that our party has gone from having the largest Senate majority in a generation to the second largest Senate majority in a generation,” Obama said.

Republicans recall Carter era

But motion does not guarantee progress. The loss of the the 60th Senate seat has exposed how maximalist the Democratic approach to healthcare was and how easily it could be halted.

Senator-elect Brown could be sworn in as early as Thursday. Republicans are criticizing the latest White House initiatives as small-bore, or, in some cases, reminiscent of the last one-term Democratic chief executive.

Foundation for Stagnation: Obama’s Jimmy Carter Throwback” was the title on a Wednesday release from the Republican National Committee. The RNC noted that the administration’s proposal for a $5,000 tax credit to employers for every job created is reminiscent of a Carter-era program whose own Treasury overseers found its impact on unemployment to be slight.


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