First Lady Michelle Obama does the “Interlude” dance during a Let’s Move event with children from Iowa schools at the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines, Iowa in 2012.(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)
WASHINGTON — As President Obama looks to show off all he can do without Congress, he’s been pointing to a surprising place for guidance on the savvy use of power: the other side of the White House.
In public and private, the president has been holding up Michelle Obama’s initiatives in the East Wing as a template for how the West Wing could accomplish a policy agenda the non-legislative way. He has called his wife’s team a model for what’s possible, and, in his State of the Union address last week, he said, “As usual, our first lady sets a good example.”
The first lady’s “Let’s Move” campaign has reduced childhood obesity for the first time in three decades, Obama asserted in his prime-time speech to Congress and the nation. Her “Joining Forces” effort has led companies to hire or train nearly 400,000 veterans and their spouses, he said. And her successes have come without help from the lawmakers on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
On college opportunities, long-term unemployment and other policy goals, the president promised to take “a page from that playbook” as he described his plans for a “year of action” in the face of Capitol Hill’s inaction.
It’s easy to see why Obama would want to link his new executive action push to his wife’s work. While his approval rating has plunged and his domestic agenda appears stuck, the first lady has remained popular, powerful — and largely out of the squabbles that consume Washington. Her “Let’s Move” campaign to encourage children to exercise more and eat right is one of the administration’s best-known public policy efforts.
Still, the idea that the nation’s most powerful political office could take a lead from an office with almost no prescribed power was a notable moment in the White House’s evolving strategy on using its influence. Obama has often struggled to wield soft power in Washington, where lawmakers have been largely immune to his persuasion and his attempts to use the bully pulpit have often failed.
This fresh focus on convening interest groups to tackle an issue — part of a host of planned executive actions — was for some an example of an ethos that pervades a White House run by a former community organizer. Others saw it as a reminder of the diminished powers of the presidency.
“In order to lead, he’s bringing all the tools he has to try to effect change,” said James Thurber, a presidential historian at American University. But whatever change can be accomplished through voluntary initiatives, he continued, “it’s usually not permanent. It’s more symbolic than real. And that is a problem for a modern-day president.”
The West Wing’s elevation of the East Wing strategy was on display Friday as the president gathered 21 corporate executives at the White House to discuss long-term unemployment. The president has failed for months to persuade Congress to pass an extension of jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, which expired at the end of last year for more than a million people.
The meeting of influential stakeholders was at a venue few could refuse. The price of entry was a pledge not to discriminate against job seekers long out of work and to review hiring practices that might unfairly weed out such applicants.
Gene Sperling, Obama’s chief economic advisor, led the long-term unemployment initiative. He said he’d consulted for months with executives. He emailed and called many — including News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch, an Obama critic — to ask them to sign the pledge.
The tactic, Sperling said, was to take a “positive approach,” focusing on what businesses could do better. “It is not an admission in doing anything wrong in the past,” he said.
More than 300 companies have signed on, including Apple, Bank of America, Deloitte, Morgan Stanley, McDonald’s and News Corp.
Working with companies, nonprofit groups and advocates is hardly a new approach for a president, but the willingness to reward companies with high-profile praise and the emphasis on voluntary commitments struck some as a new twist.
President Clinton’s White House turned to similar “micro-strategies” to advance ideas and goose Congress, particularly after his party lost the House in 1994, but they didn’t include an “ask” from the White House, said Mark Gearan, a former Clinton deputy chief of staff.
Gearan, now president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., was on the receiving end of such a request last year when he participated in a White House effort to address inequality in higher education.
More than 100 colleges and universities pledged to find ways to make college more accessible to low-income students. Hobart and William Smith Colleges vowed to work with local public schools to get students ready for college, among other efforts. Other institutions committed to increase financial aid, partner with foundations to work on college readiness and expand scholarship programs for first-generation college students.
Top administration officials, including Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s closest advisors, asked colleges what was possible and offered suggestions and guidelines for pledges, but generally left the options open. The White House reviewed the pledges and presented them to the media and other college officials.
“I think it was a rather savvy blending of the convening authority, the bully pulpit and the opportunity to gain something concrete,” Gearan said.
“Let’s Move” solicits pledges from food companies, restaurants and day care centers aimed at improving food choices for children or encouraging exercise. In return, Michelle Obama often showers praise on participants — sometimes rewarding them with a visit — high-value publicity for any company. Last month, from a Subway sandwich shop in Washington, she heralded the chain’s promise to market only healthful food to children and include more nutritious options on its kids’ menu.
Over the years, the approach has garnered criticism from some health advocates as being too soft on business and providing cover for companies with unhealthful products. White House officials argue that in their partnerships they prod companies in the right direction.
“We’re asking them to do something that is in their interest to do, in the end. But what we’re creating is a platform for them to do it which will be visible,” said Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
West Wing officials note that, despite the high-profile — and deserved, they say — shout-out to their East Wing colleagues, the sort of initiatives now getting attention are a signature of the Obama White House, which started the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation to create partnerships with nonprofit groups, local governments, advocacy groups and companies.
“A lot of our colleagues in the West Wing and East Wing started out as organizers and think from an organizer’s mentality. Since the beginning, we’ve been trying to identify big goals that move the needle in ways that engage people,” Munoz said.
What the White House says is “moving the needle” some call “small ball” and a distraction from more substantial and permanent change that could be accomplished with legislation. Despite the attention on these initiatives, follow-up and accountability can be difficult to track.
“Let’s Move” has an affiliated nonprofit group that monitors its pledges, but the promises made by colleges to help low-income students and by businesses to hire the long-term unemployed have no enforcement mechanism.
Still, White House officials say, they’re being more aggressive in rounding up allies than presidents were in the past. Sperling, a former Clinton official, suggested a better comparison might be to a different office, one with only symbolic power: former president.
“Interestingly enough,” he said, “I think this may be somewhat more similar to some of the efforts President Clinton has done in his post-presidency.”