“We can’t wait.”
Finally, President Barack Obama has had enough of what he rightly calls an “increasingly dysfunctional Congress.” Over the past week, he has begun to use his own authority to issue executive orders to move reforms the country desperately needs. “Where they won’t act, I will.”
He’s issued orders that will help an estimated 1.6 million college students pay off their student loans, assist an estimated 1 million homeowners renegotiate their mortgages, and help thousands of veterans find a job. He’s established an online center to help small businesses looking for export markets. And Monday, he issued an executive order designed to help seniors with prescription drugs that are in short supply, calling on the Federal Food and Drug Administration to increase monitoring, move more rapidly to adjust production when needed, and using the Justice Department to crack down on corporate collusion or price fixing.
By issuing executive orders, the president takes the offensive, instead of waiting on Congress to act. When the Republican Congress repeatedly refuses to act on the president’s initiatives, the public sees a government that doesn’t work.
The tendency is to blame both sides, so the obstructionist strategy works. Congress has earned the lowest levels of public approval ever, but approval of the president has declined, as well. If your overriding goal is to ensure that Obama is a one-term president, as Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell announced, then obstruction of needed reforms makes a perverse sense, even if it virtually guarantees a stagnant economy, mass unemployment and declining wages.
But by acting, the president stops banging his head against that wall. Instead, he demonstrates what he is fighting for, where his priorities are, and he exposes what that partisan wall in Congress is blocking. He takes the offense—and that makes Republicans uncomfortable, as demonstrated by Republican House Budget Chair Rep. Paul Ryan complaining at the Heritage Foundation about the president practicing the “politics of division.”
Governance by executive order goes back to George Washington, who issued the first order in 1789. Of all the presidents since Washington, Obama actually has issued the fewest executive orders. But the Constitution allows a president to protect the nation’s interest from a Congress in rebellion.
The leaders of the opposition party have proved their priority is not jobs, not public health for all, not stopping foreclosure, and not stopping onerous loans for students, but is only to stop the president.
The orders allow the president to take initiative, but there are severe limits. The president cannot appropriate funds by executive order. Any order he issues can be erased by the Congress, the courts, or by a later executive order.
Obama’s orders can’t take the steps we need to alleviate the mortgage crisis or to forestall the coming student loan debacle. He can’t put people to work on his own hook. At the end of the day, we still need Congress to act to create jobs and get this economy going.
But Senate Republicans filibustered to block even a debate on the president’s jobs plan. In a stagnant economy, they have stalled action to extend the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance and to keep teachers and cops on the job. Ending these programs will cost jobs—and quite possibly tilt a staggering economy back into a recession. So, the president has no choice but to keep pushing.