Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that President Obama plans to bounce back from his rotten 2013 mainly by pursuing his agenda through executive action rather than by working with Congress. The idea is that given the problems the country faces and the fact that Congress has become a hopeless bottleneck, Obama needs to use executive power — mainly in the form of executive orders — to get the country moving in the right direction, or at least to be perceived as doing so.
Yuval Levin wonders how anyone who has witnessed the last few years can conclude that Obama has not used unilateral executive power enough, or think he has tried too hard to work with Congress. He also points out that Obama has been at his most popular when dealing with Congress — especially in the confrontation that led to the government shutdown — and at his least popular when on his own — see the Obamacare rollout.
I see two additional flaws in Team Obama’s thinking. First, though the country will often respond positively to a strong executive, it will tend to recoil from shows of executive power by a president it doesn’t trust. After the Obamacare rollout, and especially the exposure of Obama’s lies about whether people can keep their health insurance plan, Obama is no longer trusted or believed.
In this context, open resort to rule by executive fiat is more likely to be viewed as usurpation than as leadership. The Obama administration’s prosecution and persecution of its political opponents will reinforce the usurpation narrative.
Second, the substance of what Obama tries to accomplish through executive order obviously matters. Generally speaking, the more popular a measure is, the more likely Congress will pass it. Executive orders are often used to implement measures too unpopular even to present to Congress.
This dynamic may change a bit when the out-of-power party controls a chamber of Congress and refuses to permit votes on measures unless half of its caucus favors them. In these circumstances the president may have a colorable claim that Congress is obstructing the popular will. The normal recourse is to make Congress reject popular programs and then run against the out-of-power-party on that basis in the next election.
Use of executive orders is a poor substitute. Obama can’t implement much of the legislation Congress blocks through use of executive order. For example, he needs congressional action to raise the minimum wage.
Obama’s use of executive power likely will be mostly in furtherance of highly controversial and, indeed, generally unpopular, measures, e.g. refusal to enforce laws he doesn’t like, pushing racial quotas in various contexts, and telling people how they should live. Unless Obama receives a big bounce from other events, this doesn’t seem like the path to political comeback.
Executive fiat is a path to imposing presidential will, however. As such, Obama was always going to resort to it and has been doing so for some time. The significance of the Post story resides mainly in the fact that Obama, apparently spooked by bad poll ratings, is advertising the imperial nature of his presidency in the hope of inspiring confidence in his leadership.
Obama probably would have been better advised to use executive orders in the traditional, stealthy way. Once the president advertises that his is a government of executive fiat, it will be difficult for him and his backers to claim that those who call him on it are paranoid.