Obama: Create Jobs by Executive Order
By Jeanne Mirer and Marjorie Cohn
On May 6, 1935, with the country in the midst of the Great Depression,
and with indirect efforts to create jobs having not moved the needle
of unemployment rates, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed
Executive Order 7034 and appropriated $4.8 billion for the Works
Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA put millions of Americans to
work constructing buildings, painting murals to decorate them, and
performing plays for audiences that had never before seen a dramatic
production. In the process, many were saved from poverty and
starvation and the economy began to revive.
Although Congress, as part of the New Deal, had appropriated money
specifically for relief, FDR decided to use the money for a direct
jobs program by issuing a Presidential executive order. This Executive
Order described the agencies to be involved in the program, its
structure and procedure for application and allocation of jobs.
The WPA was quickly implemented. By March 1936, 3.4 million people
were employed and an average of 2.3 million people worked monthly
until the program ended in June 1943. During its existence the WPA
employed more than 8,500,000 different persons on 1,410,000 individual
projects, and spent about $11 billion. The average yearly salary was
$1,100, a living wage at the time. During its 8-year history, the WPA
built 651,087 miles of highways, roads, and streets. It constructed,
repaired, or improved 124,031 bridges, 125,110 public buildings, 8,192
parks, and 853 airport landing fields.
Today our infrastructure is crumbling, and loss of revenue is forcing
many cities and states to cut basic services. About 15 million people
have become unemployed since the crisis hit in late 2008; a million
and a half of them are construction workers. The need for a direct
jobs program is either as great, or even greater than during the
But, in light of the election results, is such a program possible?
Can the President directly create jobs by executive order? The answer
is a resounding yes. Remember when the Emergency Economic
Stabilization Act of 2008, which created the $700 billion Troubled
Assets Relief Program (TARP) was passed, one of the purposes was to
preserve homeownership, and promote jobs and economic growth.
Much of the TARP money has been repaid and the administration refers
to the profit on the payments. If one assumes an average cost of one
job is $50,000, 6 million jobs could be immediately created for $300
billion. 12 million jobs could be created for $600 billion. Because
this is already appropriated money, Congressional Republicans could
not block it.
This direct job creation would be bold. It would also be highly
stimulative. It would not add to the deficit because it is already
appropriated money. Furthermore, one third of it would come back
immediately in taxes, and more importantly, the growth in demand from
this number of added jobs would expand private sector job growth and
grow the overall economy.
This bold program would contrast markedly with prior stimulus bills,
which were indirect and whose effects have been too slow to manifest
themselves. The posture of the Republicans during the last two years
has been to prevent the President and Congress from taking bold steps
to intervene in the economy to directly create jobs. Then they used
the Administration’s failure to take bold steps to create jobs to say
the “stimulus did not work.” They turned the very TARP bailouts they
supported into a rallying cry against government intervention in the
economy to help people and they characterized as “socialism” any
government initiatives such as health care. They decried deficits and
opposed any sane tax policies to get the deficit going in the other
By keeping progress in job creation slow and blaming the
administration for lack of jobs, the high expectations for the Obama
administration became deflated. The loss of jobs exacerbated the
mortgage crisis, and banks have been encouraged to foreclose rather
than restructure mortgages despite the opposite being explicitly
called for the Emergency Stabilization Act.
The people who voted for Obama in 2008 voted for the promised hope and
change. Many developed buyer’s remorse when what they got was a set of
policies which protected Wall Street at the expense of Main Street,
big business at the expense of workers, and made unnecessary
compromises with the right. The so called “enthusiasm gap” created by
Republican obstruction and Administration timidity, produced such a
deflation in people’s morale that it acted as an effective form of
voter suppression. The election results can be explained in this
Some have said it makes no sense that the voters would go in a
more rightward direction because the Obama administration was not
“left” enough. But the fact is the Obama administration failed to
deliver change and also failed to make the case for progressive
policies. The election of Democratic incumbents meant only more of
the same. And only 9 million of the 23 million young people who voted
in 2008, came out in 2010. This undervote made the difference.
Abraham Lincoln once said: “You can fool some of the people all of the
time, and all of the people some of the time but you cannot fool all
of the people all of the time.” What happened in this election was the
right wing was able to fool enough of the people enough of the time to
make independents join with rabid right wingers, while at the same
time suppressing the progressive electorate.
This country has a lot to do to get its economic house in order. It
is heavily dependent on the financial services industry which only
promotes speculation and unregulated bubbles. It is largely controlled
by the defense industries which have promoted two and possibly more
wars. It is beholden to the extractive energy industries, whose owners
are funding the “tea party,” thus putting environmental amelioration
on indefinite hold. And it is more and more influenced by the prison
industrial complex which promotes hostility to immigrants, and takes
resources from education and other vital areas. For the last 30 years
it has relied on anti-union and anti-worker policies, which has forced
the hemorrhaging of high paid manufacturing jobs to low cost countries
and driven down wages for U.S. workers which can no longer be papered
over with unsustainable debt.
The President cannot solve all these problems overnight, but with a
stroke of a pen he can use already appropriated money to create
millions of good green jobs, and move down the road to recovery much
faster. Any opposition to this from the Republicans will expose their
hostility to anyone but the richest members of society, and give the
progressive movement ammunition to take the offensive.
Jeanne Mirer, who practices labor and employment law in New York, is
president of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers.
Marjorie Cohn is a professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law and
past president of the National Lawyers Guild.