A young boy rides his bicycle on a street in North Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Dan Loh)
Today President Obama will give a major economic address in Illinois, the first in a series of speeches designed to refocus the national conversation on job creation and the struggling economy.
This is a mandate Obama gave himself—much of his re-election campaign last year was focused on economic recovery and specifically growing the economy “from the middle out,” a theme he will revisit today. It’s been a crazy year, with some expected distractions from the jobs debate, like immigration reform, and some unexpected ones, like a massive gun control fight and the NSA surveillance saga—but Obama is rightly returning to arguably the nation’s biggest immediate problem, the 22 million Americans who cannot find work and the sagging economic recovery.
The reflexive response by many mainstream media outlets is that the speech is rather pointless, since Congress—specifically, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives—won’t act on anything Obama proposes. But it’s crucial for Obama to set the table for the big debate that will happen this fall over the federal budget and the debt ceiling. Republicans are ready to push for severe cuts to domestic programs and the disabling of the Affordable Care Act, and the White House believes it needs a forceful and convincing counter-argument. Obama will begin making it today.
So it’s not “just a speech.” That said, if the president is serious about helping struggling Americans and combating unemployment, there is a lot he could also do without Congress, simply by executive order or federal agency action.
These measures won’t solve the unemployment crisis nor single-handedly rescue the economy, but they could help millions and would show that Obama is dead serious about helping those who need it.
Here’s what he could do:
Order fair treatment for private contractors. A study by Demos released in May found that nearly 2 million private sector workers on contract with the federal government are paid less than $12 per hour, and many also suffer under inadequate labor and safety protections. Congressional action would be required to comprehensively address the problem, but Demos noted that Obama could do quite a bit by executive order—with the stroke of a pen, he could order federal agencies to take all possible steps to ensure companies comply with relevant labor and employment laws. The study said such an order “has the potential to dramatically improve the lives of the low-wage workers that federal agencies depend on to accomplish their goals.”