WAUKESHA, Wis. — President Obama sat down at his portable signing table at a gas engine plant here Thursday to order an across-the-board review of how to improve federal job training programs.
A day after he highlighted some significant changes he can make on his own, such as creating a new government-guaranteed retirement savings account, his jobs proposal was decidedly smaller bore.
Obama acknowledged as much as he spoke to a crowd of General Electric employees, saying that an effective plan to create jobs would require investments in infrastructure and changes in the tax code, which he can’t do without Congress.
“I want to work with them, but I can’t wait for them,” he said. “We’ve got too much work to do out there.”
The president’s order illustrates how limited his power is to affect the job market. Obama asked three agencies to “develop an action plan to make the workforce and training system more job-driven, integrated and effective.”
He also directed Vice President Joe Biden to hold an “immediate stakeholder consultation” on “best practices to make our system of skills training more job-driven.” And he told his Cabinet to focus on an existing grant program for community colleges.
“We’ve got a lot of programs, but not all of them are doing what they should be doing to get people filled for jobs that exist right now,” Obama said, before he sat down at the small wooden table his staff brought and signed a three-page memorandum to his secretaries of Labor, Commerce and Education.
Republicans in Congress weren’t impressed.
In a letter, House Republicans informed Obama on Thursday that they had already acted to fix the nation’s job training programs. “In each area, a House-passed bill is already sitting in the Senate, so there is no reason for further delay,” wrote House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and three other top party members.
House Republicans noted that they had passed the SKILLS Act, which would consolidate training programs and focus resources on the most effective ones. They said the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan agency, had completed a report with all the information the president wanted.
But the president’s team said the SKILLS Act would shrink vital job training programs too much. And Obama advisor Dan Pfeiffer said the study the president ordered would be more focused than the GAO study on tailoring training programs to contemporary job opportunities.
Later in the day at McGavock High School in Nashville, Obama focused on public education as a key part of preparing the U.S. workforce for the future. He touted his promise to accelerate his initiative to connect every public school to the Internet, but said the country needed to spend more on its schools.
“We’ve got to make sure we are supporting our teachers, because they are the most critical ingredient in a school,” he said, which means more professional development and “giving them the pay that they need.”
In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, the president defended his approach as the best he could do with the GOP-led House.
“In no way are my expectations diminished, or my ambitions diminished, but what is obviously true is we’ve got divided government right now,” he said. “And in that kind of environment, what I don’t want is the American people to think that the only way for us to make big change is through legislation.”
Aides think the president’s new strategy will help him regain some of the credibility he lost with the public after the dismal rollout of his healthcare law. They note that it shows the president taking action — “doing his part,” as one put it — and avoids becoming mired in public sniping with Congress.
But a leader playing small ball can run the risk of looking weak, as President Truman did when he lamented about “trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them.”
Chris Edelson, an American University assistant professor who writes about presidential powers, said Obama’s proposals seemed pale in comparison with his promise that he would take on a stubborn Congress.
“This was first described as a go-it-alone strategy, suggesting the president would be taking bold initiatives to bypass Congress,” Edelson said. “Republicans were worried about presidential overreaching. Now that we’ve heard more, however, President Obama’s unilateral actions look to be quite limited in scope.”
Still, he said, Obama may succeed in raising issues in a way that proves influential.
“I have to think he’s concerned about the midterm elections,” he said, “and effectively saying to voters, ‘Hey, I’m trying my best, but there are limits to what I can do. I need a Congress that will work with me.’”