We'll know soon enough exactly what President Obama intends to propose as part of his State of the Union address, but it's a very safe bet that he'll talk quite a bit about the economy and his proposals to strengthen the recovery.
But Josh Green makes a point that bears repeating from time to time: in order to improve the economy, a president needs Congress.
Any stimulus measure to boost growth and create jobs must pass the Republican-controlled House, which is not only allergic to additional spending but primarily focused on imposing further cuts. Recognizing this reality, White House advisers told Bloomberg News that, rather than go through Congress, Obama will attempt to go around it -- to "circumvent lawmakers through the use of presidential power."
Okay, sounds promising. So are there executive actions that Obama can take that will meaningfully grow the economy and create new jobs? "No," says Robert Shapiro, chairman of the economic advisory firm Sonecon and a former Undersecretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration. "These are big problems, large obstacles, big challenges. I don't think there's anything within the executive powers of the president that doesn't require legislation and would have a measurable effect on jobs. He's got to go through Congress."
When Green asked Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, what the president can do, he replied, "Oh boy. There's nothing I can think of that would let the president meaningfully turn the dial on jobs by himself."
I imagine for many Americans, this is terribly unsatisfying. Obama is the president of the United States. He's the leader of the free world. He's arguably the most powerful individual on the planet. If he has a plan to create a stronger, more robust economy, then surely it is within his power to do so, right?
This is poses all kinds of problems for a White House, some substantive, some political.
Substantively, of course, a president may have all kinds of sound, credible ideas to create jobs and generate growth, endorsed by economists and backed by a record of success, but if Congress refuses to act, it won't make any difference. In Obama's case, he looks down Pennsylvania Avenue and sees a House majority that believes the economy will improve once we slash investments, lay off workers, and convince the Fed to tighten domestic monetary policy.
Sure, that's insane, but it also makes it literally impossible for a White House to even try to make things better.
Politically, it must be nearly as frustrating for a president -- many Americans say they're unsatisfied with Obama's economic agenda, unaware of the fact that we're no longer really trying Obama's economic agenda.
And with so much of the public unaware of the fact that a president must gain congressional approval to do anything of great economic significance, the White House gets blamed for Congress' dysfunction, radicalism, and neglect.
So when you watch the State of the Union tonight, and you see Obama present a vision for a stronger economy, don't look at it as an agenda so much as a request that Congress act responsibly. Alas, it's an appeal lawmakers are likely to ignore -- again.