Executive Power Politics

Executive Orders

Noam Scheiber worries that Obama’s executive action agenda could backfire politically:

[These unilateral maneuvers’] only real value is signaling that Obama believes he can exert his will on the economy without Congress and is working really hard to do that. But if that’s the effect, then they only exacerbate Obama’s dilemma by further persuading voters he has influence over the economy we just agreed he doesn’t have.

Now maybe the economy will improve on its own, in which case no foul. As I said earlier, the chances that it will are reasonably good. But if the economy doesn’t improve, or god forbid it worsens, the new approach will be a disaster. It will stick Obama with an even larger share of the blame than he’d otherwise come in for. Since the point of a political strategy is to shape voters’ perceptions of events in a way that makes them look more favorable to you, not less, this doesn’t strike me as a step forward.

From a historical perspective, Posner argues, Obama’s embrace of executive power is neither unusual nor worrisome:

The president is kept in check by elections, the party system, the press, popular opinion, courts, a political culture that is deeply suspicious of his motives, term limits, and the sheer vastness of the bureaucracy which he can only barely control. He does not always do the right thing, of course, but presidents generally govern from the middle of the political spectrum.

Obama’s assertion of unilateral executive authority is just routine stuff. He follows in the footsteps of his predecessors on a path set out by Congress. And well should he. If you want a functioning government—one that protects citizens from criminals, terrorists, the climatic effects of greenhouse gas emissions, poor health, financial manias, and the like—then you want a government led by the president.

Also, as Jonathan Bernstein noted last week, the functions of the three branches of government have never been clear-cut: 

Congress does things that look an awful lot like executing the laws (think oversight, and the Senate’s role in the nomination process) and even in some cases judging; the courts do things that look an awful lot like making and executing the laws; and, yes, the executive branch does things that look an awful lot like legislating and judging. In other words, separated institutions — president, legislature, courts — sharing the powers of legislating, executing the laws, and judging.

Those aren’t newfangled modern ideas; they’re really inherent in the way the Constitution is written, and they took root early in the republic as politicians learned to work according to the rule book that James Madison and others gave them. “Separation of powers” has always been just a very misleading description of how the U.S. political system is designed.

(Chart from The Fix.)