Yes, He Can: Twenty Ways Obama Can Use Executive Power to Push a Progressive Agenda
An executive order, briefly defined, is a presidential directive that carries the force of law. Such actions have a long and checkered history in American politics: Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was enacted via executive order, as was the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II (one of a flurry of orders handed down by FDR). Executive orders were used sparingly, for the most part, until the presidency of Bill Clinton, who vastly expanded their use, handing down more than even George W. Bush. Obama has continued this broader trend, issuing 144 executive orders in his first four years. Less binding are executive actions, presidential recommendations that cannot be carried out by the executive branch unilaterally.
In his inaugural speech, the president vowed to engage with other countries so as to "lift suspicion and fear." He should reach out to forge a more sane and sensible relationship with Cuba.
Nation readers provided good ideas—and a bit of wariness—when asked how Obamas should use his presidential authority.
In the era after 9/11, the consolidation of executive authority has led to a number of dangerous policies [see David Shipler, in this issue], and we strongly oppose the extreme manifestations of this power, such as the “kill lists” that have already defined Obama’s presidency. Yet executive power, when properly deployed, can and has played a legitimate role in helping to realign the country with its values and the needs of Americans—as Obama attempted to do when he ordered the closing of Guantánamo and an end to torture just days into his first term.
With this goal in mind, The Nation has compiled a list of executive actions that the president should take across a broad range of issues—and asked our readers to submit their own. Many pointed to the excessive military, intelligence and police powers they would like to see rolled back, at home and abroad. Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs” and created the Drug Enforcement Administration via executive order; Obama, some readers suggested, could finally end the “war on drugs”—or at least direct the DEA to stop enforcing disproportionate crackdowns on drug crimes—using the same power.
Indeed, in addition to ratcheting back the “war on drugs,” the executive branch could also—at least in theory—end the war in Afghanistan; help close some of our hundreds of overseas bases; follow through on its pledge to close Guantánamo; cut back on the use of drones; stop jailing whistleblowers; end the official harassment and surveillance of Muslims and activists; and even pardon Leonard Peltier.
Obviously, the president is unlikely to act on a number of these suggestions. But it is also obvious that our nation is facing multiple crises, many of which will not wait until an obstinate GOP House has evolved enough to act. Wherever possible, the president should act on his own to implement good public policies that can break the gridlock and ease at least some of our most serious crises, such as the heating of the earth’s atmosphere and the dangerous storms like Hurricane Sandy that result; our overextended and bloated military empire; and the corporate corruption of our political system, among many others.
We believe that aggressive and progressive executive action will bring political benefits as well, because the public is tired of waiting for results from Washington. And even if it doesn’t, taking action is still the right thing to do—for the planet, for the jobless and the homeless, for the loyal voters who stood in long lines to make history with Barack Obama twice. Besides, what’s a second term for if you can’t use your presidential power for the good of the many?
What follows is a list of ways that Obama can act to achieve progressive goals in his second term. Some, like taking nuclear weapons off “hair-trigger alert” status, are long overdue—a relic of another age that nonetheless bears correcting. Others, like a plan to modernize voting protocols, are tied to our current political landscape. By no means is this an exhaustive list—it was designed to inspire and encourage further brainstorming along these lines, as well as action-building strategies on how to explicitly pressure the White House over the next four years.
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