The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Executive order = political nothing burger

Fine, Congress. You don't want to play ball? I'll do it without you.

That was the core of President Obama's State of the Union message Tuesday night when he announced plans to wield his executive power with a new urgency. Part of it will involve using executive orders to bypass Congress, which we might see with more frequency from this president. So will the use of executive orders sway the public broadly one way or the other, especially with Republicans sounding the executive overreach alarm? Probably not.

The use of executive fiat -- Obama announced a new order hiking the minimum wage for some government contract workers as part of a "year of action" -- simply doesn't excite or enrage the American public as a whole. Roughly half of Americans (52 percent) say they approve of presidents using the tool, according to the newest Washington Post-ABC News poll. Forty-six percent say they oppose such maneuvers.

Herein lies an important point about Washington. Executive orders are about process. It's a means of making public policy. And the public is largely unmoved by insider-y process stories despite the attention they get in D.C. (This blog is not excepted, of course.)

Remember when Democrats invoked the so-called "nuclear option" last fall on the filibuster? Big story in Washington. Outside, not so much. Polling conducted before to the decision showed that a plurality of Americans didn't even know how many votes it took to break a filibuster. Polling conducted after showed the public split roughly down the middle.

So does this mean Republican officials should abandon their complaints, like the one below from Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.)? No, for a simple reason: It gins up their base.

Obama is acting unilaterally -- he also announced his intention to take other executive actions that are not technically orders -- on his agenda because Congress, where half the power lies in the hands of Republicans, will not. So it should come as no surprise that Americans are divided sharply along party lines over the question of whether presidents should deploy executive orders.

Republicans really don't like the idea of executive orders right now. Sixty-three percent oppose it and just 36 percent support it. It's even more one-sided among conservative Republicans.

It's important to note that the Post-ABC poll doesn't ask about Obama's use of executive orders specifically. Rather, it asks about their use more generally by presidents. Still, it's a good gauge of where the public stands in the current landscape.

Democrats like it about as much as Republicans don't. Sixty-nine percent support it, 30 percent oppose it. And among liberal Democrats? You guessed it. It's even more popular.

Off-year elections tend to be won and lost over which party turns out their base. This is why Republicans will continue to assail Obama's use of executive power. By the same token, there is a political upside for Obama to sign more orders. It's not just about policy. His base cheers these moves.

All of which means the debate will probably linger as we approach the midterm elections. It's notable that the issue has moved to the forefront of the political conversation given Obama's scant use of executive orders during his first five years in office, compared to other presidents.

Through 2013, Obama signed 167 executive orders, according to the Federal Register, which tracks such things. That's fewer than every president in the same time period dating back to Harry Truman. In fact, George H.W. Bush signed just about as many (166) in a single term as Obama did in his first five calendar years as president. And in less than a full term in the White House, Gerald Ford eclipsed Obama's total.

Executive orders can't be undone by Congress. But they can be reversed by a new president. That means we may hear yet more about them as the 2016 elections approaches -- especially on the Republican primary side. And a large part of how people think about the issue will probably be determined by how it is framed. Used in conjunction with "action" for example, it's bound to evoke a different perception than it would with the words "power grab" or "overreach."

But if you're looking for an issue that could reshape the way the public broadly feels about Obama this year, executive orders likely isn't one.


Here's the full transcript of Obama's speech.

Rep. Michael Grimm (R-N.Y.) reportedly threatened a journalist in an interview after the State of the Union.

In her response to the State of the Union, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) talked about a "hopeful" agenda.

In his tea party response, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) talked about an "inequality crisis.

Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.) walked out on Obama's speech.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the state GOP's decision to censure him for not being conservative enough in their view gave him extra motivation for a possible 2016 reelection bid.

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis (D) fought back in a speech against questions about her biography.

Oklahoma House Speaker T.W. Shannon (R) will announce his Senate bid on Wednesday.

Former congressman Connie Mack (R-Fla.) won't run for the seat that Republican Trey Radel resigned on Monday.


"Obama prepared to avoid Congress, go it alone on carrying out modest initiatives" -- Scott Wilson, Washington Post

"Flurry of GOP responses to State of the Union address reflects party’s ideological rivalries" -- Robert Costa and Paul Kane, Washington Post