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Feeling Legislative Chill, Obama Flexes Executive Muscles

Feeling Legislative Chill, Obama Flexes Executive Muscles

By Alexis Simendinger - September 26, 2011

When you can't legislate, act.

Seeking to overhaul a major education accountability law enacted by his predecessor, President Obama said last week he will give interested states some relief from the law on his own say-so because lawmakers in Washington have dragged their feet.

The president, flexing his executive muscles, announced Friday in the White House East Room that he is interceding because Congress has resisted legislative fixes that he said would improve and update President George W. Bush’s signature 2002 law, the No Child Left Behind Act.

“I’ve urged Congress for a while now, let’s get a bipartisan effort, let’s fix this,” Obama said, with Education Secretary Arne Duncan by his side. “Congress hasn’t been able to do it. So I will. . . . Given that Congress cannot act, I am acting. ”

Obama said his own public education initiative, known as “Race to the Top,” offers a flexibility to states that includes accountability requirements but with a focus on improvements in individual schools and among students. No Child Left Behind is “hurting our children instead of helping them,” the president asserted. “Teachers too often are being forced to teach to the test. Subjects like history and science have been squeezed out. And in order to avoid having their schools labeled as failures, some states, perversely, have actually had to lower their standards in a race to the bottom instead of a Race to the Top.”

With support from governors in both parties, and playing off a Republican argument that Washington should leave public education to the states, the president is tapping a provision in the law to act without securing congressional assent. By acting under his own steam in a fractious environment in which Congress is battling the administration on multiple fronts, the president used his executive powers under the Constitution to showcase both his heft and his leadership.

While the public frets that Washington cannot seem to resolve public policy problems, Obama’s rejoinder is that a president trumps Congress. His unilateral move offers a glimpse at a well-worn White House playbook.

“He is showing he can get something done,” said Towson University presidency scholar Martha Joynt Kumar, a close observer of the modern presidency since Gerald Ford.

“There are a lot of tools in a president’s policymaking kit,” she explained. “He starts out presenting his initiatives to Congress to get their approval, and when he hits heavy weather -- congressional disapproval of many initiatives and slowdowns of others -- then he turns to alternative tools, and one of those is his executive authority.”

A president can set rules for federal agencies and departments as models of policies he favors. He can write and rewrite federal regulations that interpret laws passed by Congress. He can appoint special bodies and councils, and organize a White House staff as he wishes. A commander-in-chief sends troops into battle and sets U.S. interests abroad. And when a president disagrees with Congress, he has the power to veto measures the legislative branch may send him.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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