President Obama

What Obama can do on jobs right now

If Congress balks at the president's agenda, here are four ways to boost employment that are ready to go ASAP


Andrew Leonard
September 9, 2011 8:28PM (UTC)

Liberals aren't the only Americans making approving noises about the American Jobs Act rolled out by President Obama Thursday night. Private economic forecasters are also giving it a thumbs up: Moody Analytics' Mark Zandi went so far as to predict the plan would add two million jobs.

But you'll be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks Congress will pass the president's plan in anything close to the shape he outlined. Which leaves us with a familiar question: What can President Obama do to boost jobs without Congress?

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Here are four ideas:

1) Help struggling homeowners refinance. Through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federal government guarantees millions of mortgages. But many of the homeowners who are paying off those mortgages don't have enough equity in their homes to qualify for refinancing. Without going through Congress, Obama probably has the legal authority to make it easier for those homeowners to refinance, resulting lower mortgage payments for millions of Americans. Extra cash equals extra stimulus, which should mean a faster growing economy and more jobs. 

Estimates vary widely as to exactly how much cash a comprehensive refinancing drive would put into homeowner pockets, but EPI economist Josh Bivens told Salon earlier this week that a refinancing drive could add "$20-40 billion" to American "household consumption possibilities." In the big scheme of things, not a huge sum, but every little bit counts.

2) Streamline regulatory roadblocks to high-impact infrastructure projects. The Republican answer to the question of how Obama can boost jobs without going through Congress is simple: Get rid of regulations. Most Democrats reject that approach, pointing out the costs associated with pollution and irresponsible corporate behavior can be much higher than anything imposed by the regulatory burden.

But on Sept. 1, President Obama directed the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Interior, Transportation and Housing and Urban Development to specify three "high-priority projects" with job creating potential that already have received funding from Congress. McClatchy reports that "the administration is hoping to speed the review and permitting process for those projects and have them start within 18 months."

That won't be easy. Requirements for such things as environmental impact statements are there for a reason. But if Democrats want infrastructure jobs right now, those regulatory wheels need to be greased.

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3) When Congress takes its next break, the President should recess appoint two new members of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors who will take seriously the Fed's mandate to reduce unemployment. Why this hasn't already been done is inconceivable. If it isn't accomplished before the 2012 election, it will be one of Obama's stupidest failures.

4) Continue to pressure China to upwardly revalue the yuan. This is a common suggestion from organized labor and representatives of American manufacturers. And there is pretty strong evidence that the China critics are right -- the Chinese government is keeping the yuan at an artificially high value relative to the American dollar. That hurts American exports and workers.

However, it's also worth noting that the yuan hit a 17-year high against the U.S. dollar on August 30, and has already gained 6.4 percent in the past year. There is some reason to believe that at least part of this steady rise can be attributed to behind-the-scenes pressure from the United States. If so, Tim Geithner et al should continue with whatever they are doing, because in the long run, the single best thing that could be achieved for American workers is big markets in China for made-in-America products.

Some of these measures will take longer than others to deliver, but even all of them put together won't make a huge dent in unemployment. For real progress, Congress needs to get in the act. But in the meantime, every little bit counts.

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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