President takes routes around congressional Republicans blocking his agenda
By Charlie Savage
updated 4/23/2012 12:53:54 AM ET
WASHINGTON — One Saturday last fall, President Obama interrupted a White House strategy meeting to raise an issue not on the agenda. He declared, aides recalled, that the administration needed to more aggressively use executive power to govern in the face of Congressional obstructionism.
“We had been attempting to highlight the inability of Congress to do anything,” recalled William M. Daley, who was the White House chief of staff at the time. “The president expressed frustration, saying we have got to scour everything and push the envelope in finding things we can do on our own.”
For Mr. Obama, that meeting was a turning point. As a senator and presidential candidate, he had criticized George W. Bush for flouting the role of Congress. And during his first two years in the White House, when Democrats controlled Congress, Mr. Obama largely worked through the legislative process to achieve his domestic policy goals.
But increasingly in recent months, the administration has been seeking ways to act without Congress. Branding its unilateral efforts “We Can’t Wait,” a slogan that aides said Mr. Obama coined at that strategy meeting, the White House has rolled out dozens of new policies — on creating jobs for veterans, preventing drug shortages, raising fuel economy standards, curbing domestic violence and more.
Each time, Mr. Obama has emphasized the fact that he is bypassing lawmakers. When he announced a cut in refinancing fees for federally insured mortgages last month, for example, he said: “If Congress refuses to act, I’ve said that I’ll continue to do everything in my power to act without them.”
Aides say many more such moves are coming. Not just a short-term shift in governing style and a re-election strategy, Mr. Obama’s increasingly assertive use of executive action could foreshadow pitched battles over the separation of powers in his second term, should he win and Republicans consolidate their power in Congress.
Many conservatives have denounced Mr. Obama’s new approach. But William G. Howell, a University of Chicago political science professor and author of “Power Without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action,” said Mr. Obama’s use of executive power to advance domestic policies that could not pass Congress was not new historically. Still, he said, because of Mr. Obama’s past as a critic of executive unilateralism, his transformation is remarkable.
“What is surprising is that he is coming around to responding to the incentives that are built into the institution of the presidency,” Mr. Howell said. “Even someone who has studied the Constitution and holds it in high regard — he, too, is going to exercise these unilateral powers because his long-term legacy and his standing in the polls crucially depend upon action.”
Mr. Obama has issued signing statements claiming a right to bypass a handful of constraints — rejecting as unconstitutional Congress’s attempt to prevent him from having White House “czars” on certain issues, for example. But for the most part, Mr. Obama’s increased unilateralism in domestic policy has relied on a different form of executive power than the sort that had led to heated debates during his predecessor’s administration: Mr. Bush’s frequent assertion of a right to override statutes on matters like surveillance and torture.
“Obama’s not saying he has the right to defy a Congressional statute,” said Richard H. Pildes, a New York University law professor. “But if the legislative path is blocked and he otherwise has the legal authority to issue an executive order on an issue, they are clearly much more willing to do that now than two years ago.”
The Obama administration started down this path soon after Republicans took over the House of Representatives last year. In February 2011, Mr. Obama directed the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages, against constitutional challenges. Previously, the administration had urged lawmakers to repeal it, but had defended their right to enact it.
In the following months, the administration increased efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions through environmental regulations, gave states waivers from federal mandates if they agreed to education overhauls, and refocused deportation policy in a way that in effect granted relief to some illegal immigrants brought to the country as children. Each step substituted for a faltered legislative proposal.
But those moves were isolated and cut against the administration’s broader political messaging strategy at the time: that Mr. Obama was trying to reach across the aisle to get things done. It was only after the summer, when negotiations over a deficit reduction deal broke down and House Republicans nearly failed to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, that Mr. Obama fully shifted course.