Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post is the latest to defend President Barack Obama’s use–past, present, and future–of executive orders to circumvent Congress. She argues that his “push-the-envelope moves” are “within the bounds of the modern presidency.” Marcus is not alone here: others have pointed out that Obama has used fewer executive orders than his predecessors, forgetting that constitutionality is what matters, not quantity.
Complaints about executive orders, Marcus suggests, are just “politics dressed up in constitutional clothing, to be put on and off depending on which party holds the White House.” I can say with confidence, as someone who never voted for George W. Bush and resented his expansion of the executive, that Obama is in another league entirely.
There are three basic ways in which Obama’s behavior exceeds that of any his predecessors.
The first is that Obama is using executive orders and actions to alter his own legislation. It’s one thing to claim that you are forced to act because Congress will not. It’s quite another thing to re-write the law after Congress has done what you asked–and after you have offered, time and time again, to entertain formal amendments to the legislation. Obama has simply invoked executive authority to cover up his own errors. That’s unprecedented.
The second way in which Obama’s abuse of executive power is different is that he has done it to prevent the legislature from acting. It is now widely acknowledged that the president issued his “Dream Act by fiat” in 2012 not just because Congress wouldn’t pass his version of immigration reform, but to outflank Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who was preparing his own version, embarrassing Obama among Latino voters. Such pettiness is rare.
The third way in which Obama’s behavior is unusual is that he commands sweeping executive power on some issues while arguing, on other issues, that he has no power to act. The president’s recent speech about the NSA surveillance programs is a prime example of such self-contradiction. There is no constitutional doctrine behind the president’s executive orders, actions, and omissions: there is just pure, cynical political expediency.
A final note. Marcus, like other apologists for President Obama’s power grabs, compares his actions to those of President Abraham Lincoln when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It is an absurd comparison, one chosen to flatter Obama’s failing pseudo-heroic image. If anything, Obama’s executive excesses tend to make us less free. He is not governing in the tradition of Lincoln, but that of Woodrow Wilson–and doing far worse.