Obama treads well-worn presidential path with executive actions

(By Deutsche Welle) US President Barack Obama has come under fire for taking unilateral action to implement aspects of his policy agenda. But experts say that Obama’s use of executive actions is in keeping with other post-WWII presidents.

Struggling to work with a divided and often recalcitrant Congress, President Obama has issued a number of controversial executive actions over the past two years to advance his domestic agenda, stirring the ire of opposition conservative Republicans.

Unable to pass immigration reform, the White House decided in 2012 to stop deporting young undocumented migrants in lieu of failed congressional legislation. The president has also delayed parts of the Affordable Care Act, such as the employer mandate, and has appointed officials while Congress was in recess.

In his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, President Obama announced executive actions that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour for future government contractors; create retirement savings plans for workers; and improve fuel efficiency standards on trucks among other proposals.

“I’m eager to work with all of you,” President Obama told lawmakers. “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.”

Republicans, however, have decried these unilateral actions on the part of the president as executive overreach. Congressman Tom Rice has submitted a resolution to the House of Representatives that seeks to halt some of Obama’s executive actions via court injunction.

“Our president is clearly saying that he is not going to be bound by the constitution,” Rice told Fox News. “One man who can enact and enforce the law – he’s a king not a president.”

‘Tools that all presidents use’

But according to Graham Dodds, an expert on US politics, Obama’s use of executive actions is largely in synch with precedents set by previous administrations.

“He has in fact not been as aggressively unilateral, hasn’t used as many executive orders as either the administration’s own boasts would suggest or his conservative critics claim,” Dodds, the author of “Take Up Your Pen: Unilateral Presidential Directives in American Politics,” told DW.

Based on figures that Dodds’ compiled from the Federal Register and the American Presidency Project, Obama has issued an average of 33 executive orders and 146 proclamations per year. That compares to George W. Bush’s annual average of 36 executive orders and 117 proclamations. Both Obama and Bush actually issued fewer executive orders than most of the other presidents over the past century.

“The complaints that the use of these unilateral instruments makes [Obama] a dictator or king is something that people have frequently criticized presidents for,” Kenneth Mayer, the author of “With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power,” told DW. “If it were a Republican president you would see Democrats saying the same thing and Republicans would be fine with it.”

“These are tools that all presidents have used going back to George Washington,” Mayer said.

Political restraints

According to Dodds, presidents have a lot of leeway to issue executive actions, so long as those actions don’t violate a clear provision of the US constitution or the express will of Congress.

“He’s hearing criticism not just from conservatives, but from liberals – from progressives – who are saying, ‘Mr. President, you need to do more unilaterally,'” Dodds said, adding that presidents often face political restraints on executive actions.

“I think he’s manifestly reserved in his use of these things,” Dodds said. “But I think that part of it is that he does not want to antagonize Congress in advance of the mid-term elections, although frankly they’re already pretty antagonized.”

Expansion of presidential power

While Obama’s use of executive actions may not be a radical departure from his immediate predecessors, experts largely agree that there has been a general expansion of presidential power across administrations at the expense of Congress and the courts.

“The conventional wisdom is that certainly since FDR’s administration and particularly since the end of World War II, presidents have accrued enormous power,” Peter Shane, author of “Madison’s Nightmare: How Executive Power Threatens American Democracy,” told DW.

This expansion of presidential power is particularly pronounced in the areas of foreign policy and national security. The current NSA surveillance programs, for example, began with President Bush’s unilateral decision to wiretap Americans’ communications without warrants. Congress reacted by passing legislation – the FISA Amendments Act – that legalized such dragnet surveillance, albeit with oversight by the secret FISA court.

“A lot of the power that presidents have came from a Congress that was entirely willing to pass off responsibility to the executive branch,” Shane said.

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