Still, Obama managed to control his contempt for Congress until last week’s State of the Union address, when he, in effect, spit in their faces. We’ve got a lot to do, he lectured members of the House and Senate, and I’m sick and tired of waiting for you to act. You either work with me, he warned, or I’m going to pick up my phone and my pen and rule by executive action.
What was Obama thinking? He’s a constitutional scholar. He must know that the Constitution delineates a clear separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government? It’s the job of Congress to pass the laws. It’s the president’s job to carry them out. For him to act without Congress violates the Constitution by establishing an Imperial Presidency.
That’s what the critics of Obama’s fifth State of the Union say — and they are dead wrong. There’s only one reason why Obama finally decided to go it on his own by executive order: Because he had no choice. For the last three years, Republicans have blocked everything Obama proposed, even measures they willingly supported under a Republican president. They raised the minimum wage under George Bush; they refuse to do so under Obama. They raised the debt ceiling — seven times! — under George Bush, with no strings attached; they refuse to do so under Obama, without exacting a pound of flesh. They led the fight for comprehensive immigration reform under George Bush; they reject the same plan now that it has Obama’s name on it.
Where’s the possibility for middle ground? There is none. Because Republicans decided in 2010 that their strategy was to oppose everything Obama stood for — and now they’re carrying that all-no, all-the-time, political strategy into the mid-term elections of 2014. They offer nothing on health care; they simply oppose Obamacare. They offer nothing on immigration; they oppose Obama’s plan. They complain about the deficit, yet refuse to eliminate billion-dollar tax loopholes for the oil and gas industry.
Indeed, how could Obama expect any cooperation from Congress in 2014? According to the Washington Post, out of 24 proposals he put forth in his 2013 State of the Union speech, only five actually became law, and some of those in limited measure. Expectations for getting anything done are even lower in this mid-term election year. So clearly, if Obama really wants 2014 to be a “year of action,” he’s going to have to make things happen, to the extent he can, by executive order — no matter how loud Republicans complain about it.
It is, in fact, laugh-out-loud ridiculous for John Boehner, Paul Ryan and others to accuse President Obama of acting outside his constitutionally defined powers. Every president since George Washington has issued executive orders, some for hugely important actions. In 1863, President Lincoln freed the slaves — by executive order. In 1948, Harry Truman ended segregation in the military — by executive order. Next to them, Obama’s promise to raise the minimum wage for workers under future federal government contracts by executive action pales by comparison.
Indeed, the real problem with Obama’s 2014 agenda is not that he will use the executive order too much, but that he will use it only for “small-ball” politics. Already, for example, even though the Employment Non-Discrimination Act or ENDA, which he supports and which would ban private employers from discriminating against LGBT workers, is bottled up in the House, Obama has refused to use his executive authority to protect LGBT workers under federal contract. Just as he’s declined to sign an executive order to halt soaring deportation of undocumented workers, which makes no sense at all. No matter what actions he takes by executive order, Republicans are going to complain about it. So this is no time to be timid. Obama might as well be bold.
Meanwhile, if Republicans in Congress don’t like Obama’s issuing executive orders, there’s one sure answer: Stop opposing everything, and start cooperating on issues like immigration reform, the minimum wage, tax reform, and extending unemployment insurance. But, of course, they’ll never do that. They’d rather whine.
Bill Press is host of a nationally syndicated radio show.