The Phone Part of a “Pen and Phone” Strategy

We all saw how President Obama came out swinging after the midterm elections with his “pen and phone strategy.” Most of the things that drew headlines were items that depended on the “pen” (executive orders) side of things – the latest being a new Clean Water Rule issued by the EPA.

But as Gregory Korte reports, a quieter use of the “phone” part of that strategy has been underway as well.

President Obama has quietly racked up a series of legislative victories during the past few months as lawmakers have enthusiastically embraced his calls for a higher minimum wage, paid sick leave and universal pre-kindergarten.

Instead of Capitol Hill, those victories happened in city halls, state houses and county buildings far from Washington.

At least six major cities — Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Tacoma, Wash., and Washington, D.C. — have passed paid sick leave laws in the four months since Obama called for state and local action in this year’s State of the Union Address. Since the 2013 address when Obama called for an increase in the minimum wage, 17 states and six major cities have taken action, including Los Angeles last week.

“It is a change in the paradigm, where we used to sit passively by waiting for elected officials to come to us. We think we can have a more substantial impact if we collaborate,” said Valerie Jarrett, the assistant to the president for public engagement and intergovernmental affairs.

“I think the president has always had the perspective that change always happens from the ground up, and our state and local officials are oftentimes more influenced by the will of the American people than the politics in Washington would seem to indicate,” Jarrett said in an interview.

Korte mentions that one of the President’s most active ambassadors on this is Labor Secretary Thomas Perez. As an example of how this strategy is unfolding, this week he travelled to Minneapolis to work with local politicians, businesses and community leaders to not only expand parental leave, but to highlight the partnerships between community colleges and small manufacturing firms that are providing living wage jobs. Here’s how our local newspaper covered the event.

It all sounds an awful lot like the approach of a community organizer, doesn’t it? Here’s how at least one expert describes it to Korte.

Obama has opened an entirely new frontier of presidential power by turning to state and local governments, said Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, who studies the effect of presidential persuasion at the University of North Texas.

“I’m really struck by, one, why hasn’t anybody thought of this before? And two, this could be a very effective strategy,” Eshbaugh-Soha said. “At a time when executive orders are becoming particularly controversial and you’re not able to break through the gridlock of Congress, I think it’s ingenious.”

I am reminded of how Michelle Obama described her husband back in 2005:

Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.