Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

The risks of Obama's executive power plan

By Julian Zelizer
updated 7:45 AM EST, Mon February 3, 2014
Army Sgt.1st Class Cory Remsburg, who was wounded in Afghanistan and awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, acknowledges thunderous applause for him at U.S. Capitol during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address. Army Sgt.1st Class Cory Remsburg, who was wounded in Afghanistan and awarded the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart, acknowledges thunderous applause for him at U.S. Capitol during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address.
HIDE CAPTION
People and Faces at the State of the Union
People and Faces at the State of the Union
People and Faces at the State of the Union
People and Faces at the State of the Union
People and Faces at the State of the Union
People and faces at the State of the Union
People and Faces at the State of the Union
People and Faces at the State of the Union
People and Faces at the State of the Union
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: President Obama promising to take action even though his agenda stalled in Congress
  • He says Obama is doing what other presidents have done, but there are risks to reliance on executive orders
  • Zelizer: Next president could quickly reverse Obama's policies, and lack of congressional support weakens them

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama has made it clear to Congress that if they will not work with him he will work around them.

Before the State of the Union address, the president announced that he was increasing the minimum wage for workers under federal contract to $10.10 an hour. During the State of the Union, "wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do."

Republicans predictably complained. Some warned that the president was embracing an unconstitutional set of tools that would violate the laws of the land. "We don't have a monarchy in this country," warned Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, "there's an executive branch and the legislative branch, and the president has to work with Congress to get things done."

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

Though Obama has been far more timid in using executive power than President George W. Bush, many in the GOP suddenly have a legal problem with presidents going their own way.

Most experts agree that what the president has done is squarely within the prerogatives accorded to presidents. There is a long history of presidents using executive power ever since the founding of the nation.

The power of the office grew enormously over the course of the 20th century and presidents became increasingly comfortable using mechanisms such as signing statements and executive orders to achieve their goals.

In December 1980, President Jimmy Carter used an executive order to protect 56 million acres of Alaskan wilderness from mining and logging. President Ronald Reagan used executive power to weaken federal agencies that were responsible for policies he opposed.

President Bill Clinton used an executive order in 1995 to prevent the federal government from entering into contracts with companies that hired strike-breakers. In 2001, Bush enraged many Democrats when he restricted public access to the papers of former presidents. He also overturned many environmental regulations that Clinton had put into place. Environmentalists complained.

Following the revelation of how many signing statements -- attachments to a bill in which a president can express concerns about sections that he believes to be unconstitutional -- Bush had used, Rep. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, explained that what the president was saying is "Congress, what you do isn't really important; I'm going to do what I want to do." Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, defended Bush, stating, "It is precedented and it's not new."

CNN's exclusive Obama interview
Kissinger on Obama's Russia policy

Obama has lagged behind most presidents in making full use of his office. The average for number of executive orders for presidents since 1900 is 44 per year. Obama has averaged 37 executive orders -- less than Republican Presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

But just because the president can take executive action, is it a good idea to do so? There are good reasons that Democrats should be leery about using presidential power to achieve their ends.

Most important, the executive orders put into place by one president can be easily and quickly overturned by the next president. Killing policies that are put into place by Obama would not be extraordinarily difficult nor would it require the kind of long, protracted struggle that Republicans have engaged in with Obamacare, thus far unsuccessfully.

When Clinton came into office in 1993, he reversed Reagan's executive order from 1984 that prohibited the use of federal funds to advocate abortion. In 2009, Obama revoked Bush's order restricting public access to presidential papers.

Presidential power also deprives a policy of the fierce public debate and congressional vote that comes with legislation. Although the process of passing bills through Congress is usually very painful for a president, if successful a policy obtains a kind of legitimacy that rarely comes from executive action. This is evident from how durable the programs from the New Deal and Great Society, such as Social Security, the Civil Rights Act, and Medicare and Medicaid have been over time.

Through legislative debate, supporters of a bill are forced to present their case and to persuade a sufficient number of representatives and senators to come to their side.

Sometimes a president from one party can persuade some members from the opposition to vote for a bill, permanently putting their imprint on the policy.

This was a powerful part of why the Civil Rights Act of 1964 gained such widespread legitimacy throughout the nation. Even when opponents lose, they are given their chance to say no and to explain to the public why they oppose an idea. By contrast, the process of issuing executive orders opens up policies to charges of illegitimacy in a way that are much more difficult to sell with laws passed by Congress.

Equally important for a president, legislators go must go on record. When they do so in support of a bill the legislator becomes much more invested in the coming years in defending that decision. Opponents go on record as well, and when a policy turns out to be popular and successful this makes them much more hesitant to continue their attacks on a program.

For decades, Republicans shied away from the kind of oppositional statements toward Medicare proposals uttered by Barry Goldwater and Reagan in the early 1960s for fear that voters would remember how they had stood firm against benefits that turned out to be enormously popular.

Obama certainly would prefer to obtain legislation and the turn to executive power is a decision of last resort, one that realistically might be the only way he can achieve anything else in the next few years. But the strategy will come with some significant costs and Obama's legacy will remain fragile and vulnerable in the coming years.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:24 PM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT