Obama Explores Power of Placeholders

One meme coming out of Tuesday’s State of the Union address is that the speech exhibited—at a time of partisan gridlock—the limits of administrative action by the chief executive.

And it’s true: The White House had talked a lot about how aggressively the president would use the tools of his office—the pen and the phone—to address the challenges of the day given Congress’ disinclination. However, a number of commentators are disappointed. “Judging from the speech, you can’t do much with a pen and phone,” wrote Slate’s John Dickerson in a smart piece. He noted that the biggest items in the president’s outline of his executive actions were a modest effort to raise the minimum wage for companies with federal contracts, the creation of six more manufacturing innovation institutes, and a sketchily described new savings instrument. “Those are hardly initiatives that amount to a ‘year of action,’” grumbled Dickerson.

And yet, while the scale of the president’s new initiatives is undeniably modest, and while the president’s pen can only deliver so much unless it’s signing a bill, it’s worth noting certain virtues of “small ball” in times of gridlock. To be sure, there are major limits to what administrative actions can achieve.  However, on the minimum wage, on a school modernization item, and on the manufacturing institutes, a gritty kind of outside-the-beltway survival strategy deserves respect.

As Dickerson notes, the president and his team are explicitly hoping that small programs will create a “‘foothold,’ produce some good results, and then expand beyond their original design.” For example, raising the minimum wage for employers who sign new federal contracts could very well have a “multiplier effect” by pressuring firms to raise wages for the rest of their workers. A similar change theory surrounds the president’s school modernization proposal. The limited competitive grant would only cover a modest number of school districts but might create “bottom up” demand somewhere out there in America. After all, it’s not a pipedream to think that losing districts will call their congressmen and pressure them to deliver more funding.

For that matter, the not-so-small vow to launch six more manufacturing innovation institutes definitely reflects, given its nature, something more than a wing and a prayer. In this case, the spatial logic of the institute concept—here’s my explainer from last year—dovetails with a potentially effective theory of “bottom up” scale-up amid gridlock. How’s that? Here’s how: Both politics and the idea of catalyzing business, universities, and laboratories to work together on tough technology issues provide an argument for launching as many hubs as possible, as fast as possible. The speed of technology cycles alone argues for galvanizing the nation’s regional innovation systems to work on multiple tough problems right away. But beyond that, getting more institutes up and running will, in itself, create momentum, and could well tap into the local resources of a big diverse nation. Notwithstanding the fear that new centers may be orphaned as the president’s temporary money runs out, there’s also the likelihood that excitement related to the start-up of six more institutes will generate local support, enlist corporate investment, and attract the interest of mayors, governors, and university presidents who may themselves be willing to invest when Congress won’t.

In a word: While the president’s modest efforts to make do may be sub-optimal, they also represent plausible experiments. The Obama administration has realized that, to get anything done at all, it will have to break with business-as-usual and try to tap other circuits of change elsewhere in the country.