'We Can't Wait' Program Still on the March, but to How Much Avail?

Katy O'Donnell
National Journal

With the renewed debate over Medicare getting all the attention last week, President Obama’s team quietly kept at an effort launched in the fall to show progress on the economy, with or without Congress’s help. A closer look at two more initiatives launched on Friday—aimed at improving manufacturing and infrastructure—reveals they are pretty small potatoes.

The projects are part of Obama’s “We Can’t Wait” offensive, established after a nasty debt-ceiling fight and the blockage of his jobs package by House Republicans. In a strategy modeled after Harry Truman’s successful 1948 campaign against a “do-nothing Congress,” Obama has sought to distance himself from the dysfunction in Washington while also pushing the narrative of helping the middle class. The parts of “We Can’t Wait” that work can be chalked up to being creative and wielding executive power. Those that don’t can be blamed on Congress getting in the way.

It seems like a win-win. The problem with the strategy, though, is that the projects are just shadows of the agenda he promised and run the risk of being perceived—and dismissed—as politicking rather than good-faith efforts to jolt a lagging economy. Case in point: the 40 “executive actions” listed under the “We Can’t Wait” banner on the White House’s website, something that prompts Republican derision.

One of the two new efforts would establish a manufacturing institute in recession-crippled Youngstown, Ohio, a critical swing state, and the other lets states spend more than $470 million in previously allocated money on transportation infrastructure. The winners of a competition led by the Defense Department will join $40 million of privately raised funds—from universities, manufacturing companies, and nonprofits from Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania—with $30 million in funding from five federal agencies. The institute is the pilot program for a plan Obama announced in March to invest $1 billion in the creation of up to 15 manufacturing institutes around the country. But he needs Congress to approve those funds.

To find the $30 million, the agencies are shifting around money they already have. While Obama doesn’t technically have to get congressional approval to finance the efforts, he does have to be careful that moving the money around doesn’t interfere with or contradict the original purpose it was allocated for.

Joe Antos, a health care policy scholar at the think tank American Enterprise Institute who previously worked for the Congressional Budget Office, noted the scale of the effort. "Keep in mind that this is not in the vast scheme of things very much money for the DoD,” Antos said. “They already have large appropriated categories—and it’s not so specific that you can’t shoehorn in a project as long as some of the words are the same.”

Also unknown is how many jobs the effort might actually create; a White House official said they weren’t going to speculate about numbers.

Some of the initiatives, mostly those announced early on in the "We Can’t Wait" campaign, did take on big problems—addressing the obstacles facing underwater homeowners, for instance, or graduates saddled with student-loan debts. But many are more shallow stabs at implementing the more comprehensive agenda he proposed.

So while the tax incentives for companies hiring veterans could prove effective, for instance, signing an order to “crack down on bad actors who prey on veterans and service-members considering higher education” appears to be little more than a display of concern for veterans. The biggest head-scratcher on the list may be the designation of Fort Monroe as a new national park, but then, a cynic might note that Virginia is a competitive state in the election. And a memo directing federal agencies to craft policies aimed at limiting the effects of domestic violence on federal employees could easily have been dreamed up at the same campaign strategy session that spawned the “War on Women” Democratic talking points (women vote at a higher rate than men).

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was asked on Friday about how his department found $470 million in unused funds so late in the year (the fiscal year ends Oct. 1). He said that the discovery was simply the result of “good staff work.”

The money comes from states’ unused earmarks awarded before Congress adopted an earmark ban; the initiative simply directs the money back to states pending the department’s approval of the transportation projects governors propose.

Asked how many people will be put to work as a result, LaHood said he didn’t have jobs estimates yet, but that with any luck, by October, “we probably will have a pretty good notion of how the money will be spent and how many jobs will be created, and we will put that out.”