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 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT