White House takes agenda to state, local governments when Congress is a no-go

Posted at 3:46 PM, Jul 28, 2015

President Obama often isn't able to sell his ideas in Congress, but he's finding plenty of willing buyers around the country.

The Obama administration has worked with Democratic-leaning cities and states to implement a range of policies that have withered in Washington, including increases in the minimum wage, mandates for companies to offer paid sick leave to employees and expansions of early childhood education. "It's a terrific mechanism for implementing progress and creating momentum -- and doing real good for people," says Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.

To encourage state and local governments to pick up batons that have been dropped by Congress, the administration is offering grant money, technical assistance and lots of public relations cheerleading. Whenever a city raises its minimum wage, it can expect to receive congratulatory tweets from top presidential aides.

Rather than banging heads with Congress over, say, changes in education policy, the White House has found more willing partners in big cities that are willing to experiment. "In Congress, programs like early childhood education and 21st century green manufacturing are suffocated to death," says Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto, who has partnered with the administration on both. "In Pittsburgh, we're like an urban lab where they can be sent to grow."

A great deal of federal policy is often carried out by lower levels of government. But what's new here is an administration itself turning to cities and states directly to implement an agenda that hasn't received the congressional seal of approval.

"Obama is blocked from pursuing policy goals in Washington, so in a more organized fashion than in the past they are encouraging state and local governments to do these things," says Timothy Conlan, a federalism expert at George Mason University in Virginia.

It's in keeping with the president's second-term strategy of side-stepping Congress, akin to Obama's go-alone efforts pursuing controversial foreign policy goals in Iran and Cuba, or signing executive orders offering undocumented workers a chance at legal status.

Cities that pursue a progressive agenda may get a blessing from the White House, but still face the potential for blowback. While nearly all big cities are controlled by Democrats, most states are dominated by Republicans. Numerous states have taken steps to block cities from setting their own course when it comes to issues such as paid sick leave, or even banning plastic grocery bags.

But big city mayors inclined to pursue liberal policy ideas are more than happy to gain the assistance -- and added publicity -- that comes with White House support. Dozens of cities have taken up the administration's challenge, through its My Brother's Keeper initiative, to retool education systems that have kept African American males from reaching their full potential.

"Under President Obama's leadership, the White House has become an important partner in our efforts to find solutions to challenges facing the people of Boston," says Mayor Marty Walsh, who has worked with the administration on My Brother's Keeper, community policing and other initiatives.

With the possible exception of minimum wage increases, Muñoz says, many of the ideas the administration is touting around the country have "strong bipartisan appeal," even if they can't get much of a hearing in Congress.

Trying out these ideas in cities or states offers the chance to demonstrate whether they might work. If they do, that's bound to build support for them on the national level. It's a mechanism that drives policy conversations in very concrete fashion, Muñoz says.

"You learn here in Washington that a lot of where the governing happens is in state and local government," she says.