The last six years of the Obama presidency has been a lesson in what team work does not look like. Republicans and Obama have butted heads on many policy initiatives, the most divisive of them all being our yearly budget planning and increasing our debt limit, which saw a 16 day government shutdown. As a nation we were suitably angered and embarrassed by the ineffectiveness of our government because we expect better from them as they are our best representatives for the will of the people. Over the course of his presidency, Obama like other presidents before him, have issued executive orders when working the legislative route proved useless and time wasting. During the state of the union address and in reference to specifically providing more opportunities to the middle class through government action Obama stated, “Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you [congress]. But America does not stand still, and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.” This statement is of course in response to the rampant political dead lock Obama has had to deal with his entire presidency and that the House and Senate have barely been able to pass a piece of legislation through both houses of congress and get a copy on the president’s desk to sign into law.
And indeed when presidents feel they’re not being heard or respected by congress they issue executive orders which become actual enforceable law if the order is within the bounds of constitutionality. During the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency he issued over 3,000 executive orders to implement his New Deal and he tapped danced all around congress while doing it. [Mind you the running average of executive orders is around 350.] Obama campaigned on a platform of compromise and cooperation, but this presidency has been anything but, thanks to Republican obstinacy. So his making a declaration about going around congress if that’s what it takes to help families is not strange, but the standard. And that standard is something that worries me.
Between the executive orders Obama has already enacted ranging from responsible natural gas development to a White House council on Native American affairs, to not enforcing DADT or DOMA [Don’t ask, don’t tell and the Defense of Marriage Act], it is clear the executive branch has more power than ever, even with a stale mated congress. This happened during Clinton’s administration and it was labeled by the media as the ‘Do-Nothing Congress’. Many of Clinton’s policy intentions did not become law through the legislative process. But by the end of his presidency he had over 350 executive orders. Like Clinton, Obama is attempting to create opportunity for the disenfranchised where ever he can, but what happens if the American public elects a despotic president? All increases in power as a matter of course had a precedent setting action. Having a president basically say up front, ‘I’m going to bypass congress because I’m tired of their games,” is a game changer. When presidents get tired of the checks and balances process, what other types of executive orders will they pass? Precedent for going around congress was in place before FDR’s reign, but the profusion of orders is one reason we instituted term limits, because FDR’s presidency made it abundantly clear that the power could be abused even though it was being used to steer the nation through a crisis. The most notable abuse being the Japanese internment camps that were created by executive order 9066 in 1942.
But eight potential years is a lot of time to allow one person to have that kind of power and authority particularly when they have an intractable congress on their hands. Eight potential years is a long time for a frustrated president to know their predecessor openly stated a willingness to circumvent the legislative process to progress their own agenda and to know that many people applauded the effort. I discuss this issue because I do not have a clear answer to this question of balancing government initiatives to create more social and economic opportunity to the disenfranchised and the almost unbelievable power and weight an executive order has. Presidential executive orders are next to impossible to reverse because congress would need to pass a de-funding initiative, have it vetoed by the president because of course he wants his policy funded and enforced, and then both houses of congress would need a two-thirds vote to override the veto which is hard to get in the best of times, but definitely hard in a politically hostile climate.
My point is that often times in life we are faced with many decisions and we will often ask ‘what if.’ We ask the question because we like to be prepared for what’s coming up in our lives and have contingencies planned. But this question sometimes has little weight when a situation calls for immediate action and subsequently deciding to ‘let the chips fall where they may.’ Indeed asking ‘what if’ too often can be a problem, but I am absolutely concerned that if we continue to not ask ‘what if’ concerning the powers of the presidential office of the United States of America we could find ourselves with a president frustrated by the consensus model of democracy. And in his or her frustration will use the power of executive orders to bypass our congress, putting policies into effect that further alienate the American public from our centralized government. In this, the type of division and distrust that we’ve recently witnessed in our political process will become uglier and messier than ever and that does not make for a socially, politically, and economically strong America.