(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
When President Obama announced his sweeping new plan for preventing gun violence on January 16, it included no fewer than twenty-three “executive actions,” in addition to a series of legislative proposals. The message was clear: in the face of congressional intransigence—on gun control and beyond—Obama will push changes through the executive branch that he believes to be for the good of the country. “Congress too must act, and Congress must act soon,” Obama said, while making it clear that the White House will not wait for the GOP-controlled House.
It was not the first time the president has flexed his executive muscle. Obama deployed such power during his first term on a number of notable occasions. The “Mini–Dream Act” executive action, for example, was hugely successful, both in terms of public policy and progressive politics. It helped people in an immediate and tangible way, was enormously popular with Latinos and Asian-Americans, and may well have won him re-election.
Others, like raising the CAFE standards to demand better fuel efficiency from carmakers and capping student loan payments, were part of the Obama administration’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative, launched in the fall of 2011, following the debt ceiling fiasco and the House Republicans’ refusal to seriously consider the American Jobs Act. “We can’t wait for an increasingly dysfunctional Congress to do its job,” Obama said at the time. “Where they won’t act, I will.”
The president has also acted through the appointment process. He made a recess appointment of Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, despite intense congressional opposition, and another three recess appointments to the five-member National Labor Relations Board, putting it back in action after the Republicans refused for months to confirm any new members. Obama also handed down the Health and Human Services Department contraception mandate—a critical fulcrum point in the GOP’s politically costly “war on women.”
Less high-profile measures have included utilizing the 1906 Antiquities Act, first used by Theodore Roosevelt to protect historic or beautiful public land, to preserve a few areas, including Fort Monroe in Virginia and Fort Ord in California. Last fall, Obama also named Colorado’s Chimney Rock Archaeological Area as a national monument, and dedicated the César E. Chávez National Monument in California.
The president can do much more. So can the cabinet departments and federal regulatory agencies. As Barack Obama begins his second term, and weighs his overall legacy, it will be crucial for progressives to push him to act on a broad range of issues for which there is an absence of congressional will (or a concerted effort to block progress). Pressing for reforms through executive action—using both “street heat” and “suite heat”—should be a serious focus of our work in the coming months.
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.