Bush or Gore: Does It Matter?
Despite the various constitutional restrictions on his power, a US President retains an awesome ability to make things happen just by saying so. The constitutional mechanism for this is the executive order, and historically, these actions have been known to transform millions of people's lives with a stroke of the presidential pen. FDR all but saved the pre-Pearl Harbor British war effort against the Nazis with his "Destroyer Deal," and Harry Truman desegregated the military virtually overnight, both on their own say-so, alone. Following the Freedom Rides in 1961, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, acting for his brother, petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to desegregate all facilities, including bus terminals, railroad stations and airports, instituting federal lawsuits when localities resisted. Bill Clinton outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians seeking security clearances--something all of his predecessors since Dwight Eisenhower refused to do. (As a result, "if you are a lesbian, you are no longer automatically a spy," notes Barney Frank, in a piece of good news for Mary Cheney.) Clinton also acted unilaterally to protect millions of acres of federal land from development. Just this year, he created the Grand Canyon-Parashant, Giant Sequoia, Agua Fria and California Coastal national monuments. He is expected to ban new road construction on approximately 40 million acres, roughly a fifth of all of the Forest Service's 192 million acres.
On the other side of the ledger, a President can also cause immeasurable harm purely on his own authority. Lyndon Johnson took us into Vietnam on the basis of an executive order, though he augmented it with the dishonestly obtained Gulf of Tonkin resolution. Ronald Reagan signed executive orders that sold public lands to private industry, allowed increased CIA spying on citizens, expanded the government's censorship and secrecy powers over its employees, instituted random drug-testing for all federal employees, reprogrammed foreign aid to send it to the murderous government of El Salvador and created a new government office for the express purpose of making an end run around Congressional restrictions on aid to the Nicaraguan contras.
Then there are the courts [see last week's special issue of The Nation, "The Supreme Court and the Election"]. The President nominates not only Supreme Court judges whenever a vacancy arises but also every one of the 852 judges on the federal bench. Few, if any, of the 374 judges Clinton has appointed have been cutting-edge, left-of-center scholars, but just about all of them are well to the left of the reactionary bunch nominated by Presidents Reagan and Bush. I don't like to judge the world this way myself, but since a lot of people do, here are some relevant numbers: 48 percent of Clinton's judicial nominees have been women or minorities, compared with just 28 percent for Bush and a mere 14 percent for Reagan. And Clinton's Supreme Court appointees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg--whom the University of Chicago's Cass Sunstein calls "the Thurgood Marshall of feminism"--and Stephen Breyer, have been on the progressive side of virtually every Court decision since their appointments.
The President also makes as many as 3,000 political appointments to the federal government, not including temporary appointments. More often than not, Bill Clinton's political appointments have been as safe and mainstream as those for the courts. He has ducked innumerable fights, most egregiously after he appointed his friend, voting-rights pioneer Lani Guinier, to the civil rights division of the Justice Department. Even so, the Administration included any number of leading progressives in positions of genuine power and influence, and these people have been able to use these positions to increase the degree of social justice under which millions of Americans live their lives. Such appointments are important in ways that never make the nightly news reports and hence slip under the radar of all but the most politically obsessed. For instance, Robert Reich told me that during his four-year term as Labor Secretary, he issued hundreds if not thousands of rules on how to implement laws and was generally given considerable discretion in how he chose to do so. Reich was able, on his own authority, to force employers to make their pension-fund contributions within forty-five days, he recalls, "as many had been using them as revolving credit funds." Under Reich, the department also cracked down on sweatshops, and through OSHA, on unsafe plants where workers had been getting their arms mangled and their heads crushed. While Reich lost the main battle to Lloyd Bentsen and Robert Rubin to wage an Administration-led crusade against corporate welfare, he succeeded in opening up the discussion and hence in encouraging progressive groups to challenge corporate giveaways, sometimes successfully. Reich's replacement, Alexis Herman, is one of the most progressive members of the current Administration. Like Reich, she has made behind-the-scenes efforts and frequently consulted with John Sweeney in ways that have helped give unions the time and tools they need to start winning strikes again. Suffice it to say that insuring a fair fight for labor unions on strike was not high on the agenda of past Republican administrations.
Even the President's purely symbolic acts can have powerful, though hardly obvious, effects on the life of the nation. While his commission on race may be fairly judged a failure, for instance, Clinton's willingness to confront the issue of affirmative action head-on in his speeches and town meetings almost certainly saved the program--no longer is it the far right's favorite target for whipping up social resentment against liberals, minorities and other alleged deviants. His choice of Jesse Jackson as a special envoy to Africa and as an adviser on many domestic issues has also had meaningful if unmeasurable effects on the cause of racial inclusion. And the Clinton/Gore embrace of the gay community has created massive ripples in what were, until recently, stagnant waters. Ronald Reagan, perhaps the twentieth century's most effective hypocrite, privately invited gay men to sleep together under the White House roof, yet it took him 2,258 days in office to utter the word "AIDS" in public. In welcoming gays and lesbians at the White House with open arms, Clinton advanced their acceptance into mainstream society to a degree that was unthinkable when he was first elected. The openly gay financial writer Andrew Tobias, national treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, calls gays and lesbians "an explicit part of the Democratic vision, a welcome member of the team." And surely it makes a difference in the character and flavor of our public life that the President has picked progressive heroes like John Kenneth Galbraith and George McGovern for the nation's highest official honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Recent Republican choices have included Milton Friedman and Whittaker Chambers.
Finally, the cliché that "the President proposes and Congress disposes" is dead-on, although it underestimates the office's power of persuasion. Some members of Congress may not like the Microsoft antitrust suit, but there isn't a damn thing they can do about it. And they may resist re-raising the federal minimum wage or doubling the earned-income tax credit for low-wage workers, but they must deal with these issues if a President insists on raising them. Under Reagan and Bush, these proposals languished. Under Clinton, the GOP Congress has been forced to act repeatedly--against the wishes of its own constituency--to help increase the purchasing power of the working poor.