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Obama's Year Of Inaction

May 21, 2014

In his Jan. 28 State of the Union Address, President Obama pledged to "make this a year of action," if necessary by himself if Congress didn't cooperate. "I've got a pen," he'd said earlier in the month, "and I've got a phone."

Earlier this month, the White House issued an update on its "Year of Action" theme, featuring the headline "See what President Obama has done this year to help ensure opportunity for all Americans" on the report's cover.

Here's the kind of thing I found in the White House list of 24 actions: "Executive Order directing the timely completion of the International Trade Data System" and "permanently protected the first shoreline addition to the California Coastal Marine National Monument." This stuff will not ignite economic growth, expand opportunity, create jobs or reduce deficits.

Mr. Obama's "Year of Action" has produced very few results, making his sixth year in office singularly ineffective so far. Of course he blames Republicans, who oppose some of his proposals such as raising the minimum wage. However, the Congressional Budget Office's conclusion that this action would cost 500,000 jobs has even unsettled some House and Senate Democrats.

The president's difficulties can be explained by several factors. For starters, the administration often doesn't follow through. Consider the president's State of the Union pledge "to slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects" in "transportation and waterways." This seems to have gone nowhere. The Keystone XL pipeline is apparently not a key project.

Or take his call for reforming a tax code "riddled with wasteful, complicated loopholes." The status of the administration's draft legislation? Nonexistent. Has anyone met with Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, since the bill must originate in the House? No.

Some of Mr. Obama's agenda is opposed by his own party. He called for Trade Promotion Authority to strengthen his hand in negotiating trade deals in his State of the Union address. The next day Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid killed it, warning, "Everyone would be well-advised to not push this right now."

Then there's White House bungling. An increasing number of Republicans want to reform immigration. So the White House makes it known Mr. Obama is considering unilaterally changing deportation policies, diminishing the interest of congressional Republicans in acting now. They (reasonably) fear he will simply apply the law as he wants, not enforce it as written. The ferociously partisan Mr. Obama has little credibility with his loyal opposition.

It also hurts that the administration isn't focused on the issues that concern Americans. In Gallup's April 30 survey, the top three issues people picked as "very important" to their vote for Congress in November were the economy (43%), the federal budget deficit (37%) and taxes (36%). Foreign policy tied with taxes for third.

The president has not offered a sustained focus on the economy, and voters can tell he doesn't have a serious governing agenda on the issue. What they hear are banal talking points and focus-group-tested phrases. The result is mush.

Or, in some cases, worse than mush. Delaying the Keystone XL pipeline and making it harder to build or operate coal-fired power plants actually undermines growth, job creation and America's competitiveness.

He rarely talks about the national debt. Taxes only come up as a topic when he wants to raise them. He understandably doesn't highlight foreign policy because his is such a mess.

Much of what Team Obama says seems unconnected to reality. In a conference call earlier this month, National Economic Council Director Jeffrey Zeints claimed that the administration's "concrete actions" are "working like a jolt of caffeine" on the economy. That doesn't square with the experience of ordinary Americans, who do not see the first quarter's GDP growth of 0.1% as a double espresso.

Finally, Mr. Obama seems unable to get ahead of many new challenges, whether it is Russia's efforts to subsume Ukraine or the scandal over secret Veterans Administration waiting lists. This makes him look weak and disengaged.

Congressional Democrats are increasingly disappointed and fearful. They thought Mr. Obama had a trick up his sleeve for the midterms, not just a pen and a phone. They know if voters disapprove of Mr. Obama, they'll take it out on them this fall.

A version of this article appeared May 22, 2014, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline Obama's Year Of Inaction and online at WSJ.com.

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