Obama knows his executive power has some limits, even if his liberal donors don’t

November 26, 2013
(Carolyn Kaster/ Associated Press)
(Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

On Monday afternoon, President Obama had to deliver a civics lesson in San Francisco to some of his wealthiest donors, which happens from time to time. Speaking at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser at the SFJazz Center, Obama responded to a heckler by explaining that he couldn't solve every thorny policy issue by invoking his executive authority.

After a man repeatedly shouted “executive order” during Obama’s speech, the president said there is “no short-cut to democracy” and that he could not sign executive orders to bypass Congress.

“A lot of people have been saying this lately on every problem, which is just, ‘Sign an executive order and we can pretty much do anything and basically nullify Congress,’ ” Obama said.

As many in the audience began clapping, Obama interrupted them. “Wait, wait, wait,” he said. “Before everybody starts clapping, that’s not how it works. We've got this Constitution, we’ve got this whole thing about separation of powers. So there is no short-cut to politics, and there’s no short-cut to democracy.”

Obama has certainly used this mechanism to tackle high-profile issues in the face of congressional resistance during his time in office. In June 2012, he granted a two-year reprieve from deportation for certain eligible immigrants who were brought to the country as children and have gone on to be productive and otherwise law-abiding residents. And he has issued executive orders to impose stricter gun controls on multiple occasions to strengthen the existing background-check system and promote research on gun violence, as well as to ban almost all re-imports of military surplus firearms to private entities.

But some advocates think the president hasn't gone far enough. Gay rights activists want Obama to issue an executive order barring workplace discrimination against gay and transgender Americans, while campaign finance reform proponents are seeking an executive order imposing stricter ethics requirements on federal contractors.

But Philip Wallach, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said it isn't surprising that Obama is somewhat hesitant about invoking his executive authority at this point.

"No executive order can change the law. He can use it to change the way that policies are enforced or interpreted," Wallach said, adding that these measures can be sometimes challenged in court or reversed by a subsequent president, making them "not nearly as enduring as changes in legislation."

And given the current polarized political climate and conservatives' outrage over the many executive orders Obama has issued, Wallach added, "He sees that doing things through executive orders creates problems of political legitimacy for him."

That doesn't mean Obama won't invoke his executive authority before leaving office; he is likely to use it multiple times, particularly given Republicans' ongoing obstructionism. But he will use this tool with caution — much to liberals' chagrin.

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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