For two weeks President Obama and his team have been setting up the argument that since he can’t get Congress to enact his proposed legislative agenda, this year he will use the formal power of executive action and the persuasive power of the bully pulpit to do what he can to solve economic problems. President Obama seems to be writing off major legislative progress on economic policy this year, conceding that he cannot find compromises with a Republican majority House. He will therefore take mostly symbolic actions this year to energize his political base and reinforce his party’s ballot box chances this fall. Whatever your view on a minimum wage increase and the extension of unemployment insurance, they are economic small ball. The only significant economic legislation he seems likely to ask for is trade promotion authority (which I support).

I’m sure President Obama understands just how constrained are his options for executive action. Even with lawyers willing to push the constitutional envelope and a friendlier DC Circuit Court to back them up, the president’s ability to make major economic policy changes without Congress is quite limited, and he has to hope a future Republican president won’t unilaterally undo what he unilaterally does. His pen is more like an erasable pencil, and the “he has a phone” argument is a bit pathetic. Without a legislative agenda and the ability to enact it, a president can affect economic policy only around the edges.

I therefore don’t understand the next step in President Obama’s “phone and a pen” argument. While the Senate majority is in play this November, the House majority is not. It is extremely likely that Republicans will keep the House, and almost as likely that they will continue to struggle to function as a governing majority party in 2015 and 2016. Next year and the year after President Obama will face a legislative challenge as big or bigger than he faces now.

I agree that it’s quite hard to build a legislative strategy in the current legislative and political environment. But does that mean you don’t even try? Working with a Republican House and Senate, President Clinton signed Gramm-Leach-Bliley into law in 1999, the year after Republicans impeached and tried him. Working with a Democratic House and Senate, and when he was fiercely unpopular with Democrats, President Bush enacted an energy law in 2007 and TARP in 2008. All three of these laws were enacted in intensely partisan legislative environments only because of strong presidential leadership.

If President Obama has given up hope of finding principled economic policy compromises with a Republican majority House this year, what is his game plan for his final two years? Next year will he try to figure out a way to cut the legislative Gordian knot, or instead just recharge the phone and buy some more pens and pencils? Has President Obama given up on Congress, and therefore on economic policy, for the next three years?

(photo credit: White House photo by Pete Souza)