Obama looks to bypass Congress with help for homeowners, students

With the jobs bill stalled, Obama is bypassing Congress and using executive powers to enact change. Strapped homeowners and indebted students are first in line under his relief plan.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Obama speaks at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Las Vegas, on Monday. Obama will unveil new measures to help struggling homeowners in Las Vegas on Monday in the first leg of a campaign-style swing through western states that may be crucial to his re-election in 2012.

“Yes we can” is out. President Obama’s new slogan: “We can’t wait.”

After the Senate blocked consideration last week of Mr. Obama’s jobs proposal, the administration has moved to Plan B: bypass Congress and enact change via executive-branch measures. On Monday, the federal government announced new rules for some “underwater” homeowners, to make them eligible for lower interest rates.

The president will discuss the new program in a speech in Las Vegas Monday at 5:30 p.m., Eastern time. Nevada has both the highest unemployment (13.4 percent) and foreclosure rates in the United States, and it’s a crucial swing state in next year’s presidential election.

In the “We can’t wait” initiative, the administration is “taking and highlighting a series of executive actions to show that we’re doing everything we can do to get the economy moving to help middle-class families and create jobs,” said Dan Pfeiffer, White House communications director, in a call with reporters.

At the same time, Mr. Pfeiffer said, the administration will continue to pressure congressional Republicans to pass the president’s $447 billion jobs bill, the American Jobs Act, either in its entirety or piece by piece.

In his Las Vegas policy speech, the president will also highlight part of the American Jobs Act called Project Rebuild, which aims to stabilize blighted neighborhoods. Federal money would be used to leverage private capital to hire construction workers, who would rehabilitate homes and businesses.

“If Congress would act, we could get Project Rebuild funded and helping homeowners right away,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters on Air Force One en route to Las Vegas.

On Wednesday, Obama will announce new rules for repayment of federal student loans in a speech in Denver, capital of another election battleground state, Colorado.

It’s not clear how many jobs will be created from these policy changes, but they at least demonstrate movement in areas that have been financially devastating to some Americans. When the housing bubble burst in 2008, causing housing prices to fall sharply, many Americans became trapped in homes they could no longer afford. Many are “underwater,” that is, they owe more than their house is worth.

The president’s plan announced Monday is a revision of the Home Affordable Refinance Program and would reduce the barriers to refinancing loans that are guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The revised refi program could save homeowners up to $200 a month, the administration says.

The office of Republican House Speaker John Boehner took the new “We can’t wait” slogan and turned it into a list of things “struggling families and small businesses ‘can’t wait’ for”: jobs bills passed by the Republican-controlled House to be taken up by the Democratic-controlled Senate; Obama to stop campaigning for “more failed ‘stimulus’ spending and start working to find common ground”; the Obama administration to “end delays on job-creating American energy production”; and the Senate to pass a budget.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Obama should feel pretty good: His new slogan is now framing the discussion. And on the foreclosure crisis, which was barely discussed in last week’s GOP debate in Las Vegas, the president is bringing media attention to the ground zero of foreclosures.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a leading Republican presidential candidate, made comments last week on the foreclosure crisis that the Obama campaign has been happy to highlight. One way to deal with the housing situation is, “don’t try to stop the foreclosure process,” Mr. Romney told the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s editorial board in an interview published Oct. 20. “Let it run its course and hit bottom.”

During the debate, Romney said, “The right course is to let markets work.”

The Obama campaign reacted immediately. “Mitt Romney’s message to Nevada homeowners struggling to pay their mortgage bills is simple: You’re on your own, so step aside,” wrote Ben LaBolt, campaign spokesman, in a statement. “This is just one more indication that while he will bend over backwards to preserve tax breaks for large corporations and tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, Mitt Romney won’t lift a finger to restore economic security for the middle class.”

During his West Coast swing, in addition to policy speeches, Obama will attend fundraisers in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver. While in Los Angeles, Obama will appear on NBC’s “The Tonight Show.” Republicans call the trip a campaign tour.

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