By Jim Kuhnhenn
ABOVE PHOTO: President Barack Obama talks with Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., prior to entering the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., for his address to a Joint Session of Congress to outline the American Jobs Act, last month.
(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
LAS VEGAS — President Barack Obama offered mortgage relief on last Monday to hundreds of thousands of Americans, his latest attempt to ease the economic and political fallout of a housing crisis that has bedeviled him as he seeks a second term.
“I’m here to say that we can’t wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job,” the president declared outside a family home in Las Vegas, the epicenter of foreclosures and joblessness. “Where they won’t act, I will.”
Making a case for his policies and a new effort to circumvent roadblocks put up by Republican lawmakers, Obama also laid out a theme for his re-election, saying that there’s “no excuse for all the games and the gridlock that we’ve been seeing in Washington.”
“People out here don’t have a lot of time or a lot of patience for some of that nonsense that’s been going on in Washington,” he said.
The new rules for federally guaranteed loans represent a recognition that measures the administration has taken so far on housing have not worked as well as expected.
His jobs bill struggling in Congress, Obama tried a new catchphrase — “We can’t wait” — to highlight his administrative initiatives and to shift blame to congressional Republicans for lack of action to boost employment and stimulate an economic recovery.
Later in the week, Obama announced measures to make it easier for college graduates to pay back federal loans. Such executive action allows Obama to address economic ills and other domestic challenges in spite of Republican opposition to most of his proposals.
While Obama has proposed prodding the economy with payroll tax cuts and increased spending on public works and aid to states, he has yet to offer a wholesale overhaul of the nation’s housing programs. Economists point to the burst housing bubble as the main culprit behind the 2008 financial crisis. Meanwhile, the combination of unemployment, depressed wages and mortgages that exceed house values has continued to put a strain on the economy.
While the White House tried to avoid predicting how many homeowners would benefit from the revamped refinancing program, the Federal Housing Finance Agency estimated an additional 1 million people would qualify. Moody’s Analytics say the figure could be as high as 1.6 million.
Under Obama’s proposal, homeowners who are still current on their mortgages would be able to refinance no matter how much their home value has dropped below what they still owe.
“Now, over the past two years, we’ve already taken some steps to help folks refinance their mortgages,” Obama said, listing a series of measures. “But we can do more.”
At the same time, Obama acknowledged that his latest proposal will not do all that’s needed to get the housing market back on its feet. “Given the magnitude of the housing bubble, and the huge inventory of unsold homes in places like Nevada, it will take time to solve these challenges,” he said.
In spelling out the plan to homeowners in a diverse, working-class Las Vegas neighborhood, Obama chose a state that provides the starkest example of the toll the housing crisis has exacted from Americans. One in every 118 homes in the state of Nevada received a foreclosure notice in September, the highest ratio in the country, according to the foreclosure listing firm RealtyTrac.
Obama visited the home of Jose and Lissette Bonilla, two grocery store workers whose house was refurbished under a program paid for by the original 2009 economic stimulus plan. The program was designed to stabilize communities hit by foreclosures or abandonment. Lissette Bonilla said she told the president that without his stimulus plan, the five members of her family would still be living in a one-bedroom apartment.
Presidential spokesman Jay Carney criticized Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for proposing last week while in Las Vegas that the government not interfere with foreclosures. “Don’t try to stop the foreclosure process,” Romney told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “Let it run its course and hit the bottom.”
“That is not a solution,” Carney told reporters on Air Force One. He said Romney would tell homeowners, “‘You’re on your own, tough luck.'”
The president also was using his visit to Las Vegas to promote a $15 billion neighborhood revitalization plan contained in his current jobs proposal that would help redevelop abandoned and foreclosed properties and stabilize affected neighborhoods.
The Nevada stop was the first leg of a three-day tour of Western states, blending his pitch for boosting the economy with an aggressive hunt for campaign cash.
From Nevada, Obama headed to the glamor of Hollywood and the homes of movie stars Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas and producer James Lassiter for some high-dollar fundraising. On Tuesday, he taped an appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno. He will also raise money in San Francisco and in Denver.
Before the president addressed his mortgage refinancing plan, he attended a fundraiser at the luxurious Bellagio hotel, offering a sharp contrast between well-to-do who are fueling his campaign and the struggling homeowners hoping to benefit from his policies.
The mortgage assistance plan by the Federal Housing Finance Agency will help borrowers with little or no equity in their homes, many of whom are stuck with 6 or 7 percent mortgage rates, to seek refinancing and take advantage of lower rates. The FHFA plans to remove caps that had allowed homeowners to refinance only if they owed up to 25 percent more than their homes are worth.
The refinancing program is being extended until the end of 2013. It was originally scheduled to end in June 2012.
The administration’s incremental steps to help homeowners have prompted even the president’s allies to demand more aggressive action.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a moderate Democrat from California, gave voice to Democratic frustration on the housing front last week when he announced his decision not to seek re-election, blaming the Obama administration directly for not addressing the crisis.
“I am dismayed by the administration’s failure to understand and effectively address the current housing foreclosure crisis,” Cardoza said in a statement that drew widespread attention. “Home foreclosures are destroying communities and crushing our economy, and the administration’s inaction is infuriating.”
Obama’s new “We can’t wait” slogan is his latest in a string of stump-speech refrains he hopes will pressure Republicans who oppose his $447 billion jobs package. He initially exhorted Congress to “Pass this bill!” then demanded “I want it back,” all in the face of unanimous Republican opposition in the Senate, though even some Democrats were unhappy with the plan.
Obama has now agreed to break the proposal into its component parts and seek congressional approval one measure at a time. The overall proposal would increase taxes on millionaires, lower payroll taxes on workers and businesses for a year, pay for bridge, road and school construction projects, and help states and local governments retain teachers and emergency workers.
The proposals with the best chance of passage are the payroll tax cuts and extensions in jobless insurance to the long-term unemployed.
Countering Obama’s criticism, GOP leaders say the sluggish economy and stubbornly high unemployment rate are the result of failed Obama administration policies.
“It’s another day in the campaign life of President Obama, and he’s bringing his re-election tour to Nevada, ground zero for the damaging effects of his failed economic policies,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Monday.