Obama counts on power of convening people for change
Politics • With little hope of persuading the GOP, the president focuses on personal touch.
Published: January 11, 2014 07:09PM
Updated: March 24, 2014 11:33PM
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President Barack Obama listens as he has lunch with five young people at The Coupe restaurant in the Columbia Heights section of Washington, Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. The five are spearheading creative outreach efforts to connect with and help enroll young consumers through the Marketplaces or are interested in getting more involved with these efforts. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Washington • President Barack Obama may have lost the power of persuasion with Congress, but he still has the underrated power of invitation to the White House. Since congressional Republicans remain hostile as ever to his agenda, next week Obama will begin hosting influential groups in the West Wing to try to spur specific action on national problems short of changes to federal law.

More than 100 college presidents are expected to gather with Obama on Thursday to discuss ways that they can commit to enrolling more low—income minority students and ensuring that more of them graduate.

Two weeks later, corporate executives will be in the White House to talk about how they, as employers, can reduce the hiring stigma that attaches to many jobless Americans the longer they have been out of work.

Obama is to highlight both initiatives in his State of the Union address Jan. 28, and will keep seeking legislation to such ends, administration officials say.

But rather than continue to wrangle with recalcitrant Republicans, Obama has told associates that he sees more opportunities for progress in using his convening power to summon to the White House and mobilize some of the nation’s most prominent citizens, who can have an immediate impact in their fields.

In the dual metaphor now favored at the White House to describe the reliance on executive actions — the phone and the pen — the phone signifies presidential invitations to the meetings, while the pen represents Obama’s more familiar authority to sign executive orders and federal regulations.

“In a world of divided government, it is unrealistic to expect large portions of our agenda to pass a Republican Congress,” said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s senior strategist. “But what we have to do is demonstrate to the public how we are moving the ball forward, absent congressional action.”

While Obama in past years has formed advisory councils and hosted forums, the topics were typically broad areas like job creation or export promotion. The new gatherings are more narrowly focused and have the goal of producing “deliverables” — commitments for specific actions and investments.

But the sessions will require the kind of follow-up that Obama’s critics say has been missing from a number of previous executive initiatives — for example, past outreach to business groups on job creation. And such shows of presidential leadership cannot soon offset the damage done by the bungled introduction of the government’s health insurance website.

“There’s no better convener than the president of the United States,” said M. Peter McPherson, a former president of Michigan State University. Now the president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, an alliance of about 200 institutions, McPherson has met with White House officials, led by Gene B. Sperling, Obama’s top economic adviser, to plan the meeting with college presidents.

“The way they’re structuring this is they’re saying: ‘Here’s the broad goal. What kinds of ideas or commitments do you have to meet it?’ ” McPherson said. “They had some suggestions, but they made it very clear that these weren’t exclusive ideas.”

He said of the summit: “We think it’s just a great idea. You have got a bunch of universities that are really quite interested.”

Obama’s heightened emphasis on executive action is also reflected in his recent hiring of John D. Podesta, a former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. Podesta, who this week began a yearlong stint to help out in the White House after a rocky 2013 for Obama, is founder of the left-leaning Center for American Progress and has long called for Obama to make greater use of executive powers — including by convening White House summits.

In a report for the center after Republicans won a House majority in November 2010, Podesta proposed actions on job creation, education, energy, health care, consumer protections, home foreclosures and more, some of which the administration has since taken. Obama, as chief executive, could seize “an opportunity to demonstrate strength, resolve and a capacity to get things done on a host of pressing challenges of importance to the public and our economy,” Podesta wrote.

“Congressional gridlock,” he added, “does not mean the federal government stands still.”

Podesta, who planned Obama’s transition in 2008, cited in his report a first-term initiative, Skills for America’s Future, as one example of the president’s use of his convening power. In meetings with community colleges, employers, labor unions and job-training providers, the administration got their pledges to work toward graduating 5 million more community college students by 2020.

Podesta recalled that, in the 1990s, Clinton enlisted 20,000 businesses in a Welfare-to-Work Partnership that put a million welfare recipients into jobs. Clinton, in his post-presidency, continues to exploit his drawing power by annually convening experts, politicians, executives and rich benefactors worldwide to participate in his Clinton Global Initiative, which addresses causes like economic and education inequities, climate change and public health.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, wrote in 2011 that the “convening model” of the Clinton Global Initiative “stimulates more action by more groups in more places. It gets people who already have their fingers on the levers of change moving quickly.”

She added, “President Obama could bring thousands of business leaders to the White House to pledge action for job creation (but he hasn’t yet).”

Contacted last week, Kanter said the kind of Clintonlike mobilization that Obama seems to be attempting “gets the action going,” with each participant “doing something in their own way that might then add up to significant change.”

For the White House meeting with college presidents, a detailed agenda drafted in consultation with university officials shows the kind of results that Obama seeks.

The proposed pledges include specific targets for recruiting more low-income students as well as efforts to help such candidates through the process of standardized testing, application writing and college interviews. The goal is to reduce their disadvantage against more privileged applicants who increasingly seek professional help.

Michelle Obama, who will participate in the meeting, alluded in recent remarks at a Washington high school to her own experience when she applied to Princeton.

“I couldn’t afford to go on a bunch of college visits,” she said. “I couldn’t hire a personal tutor. I couldn’t enroll in SAT prep classes. We didn’t have the money.”

To retain low-income students through graduation, other proposals on the table would commit colleges to do more through counseling and bolster other efforts to help them both with classwork and with adjusting to life among more affluent students.

One idea: “cohort” admissions that accept small groups of low-income students from the same high schools or communities, to support one another.