Obama: A President Tests His Limits

Whatever he boasts, President Obama needs more than a “phone and pen” to wield power. By Ron Christie.

Just two weeks into the New Year, trying to pin down President Obama’s national priorities is like looking through a kaleidoscope while sitting on the deck of the S.S. Minnow. The president started the year focused on jobs, followed by a pivot to income inequality. Next up Mr. Obama extolled the virtue of extending unemployment insurance benefits before he turned to an important discussion of promise zones. I don’t begrudge a president the opportunity to articulate a vision to the American people; Obama’s efforts thus far in 2014 has had the feel of a fly fisherman casting and re-casting his line while looking for a bite from the national press corps to validate and calibrate his focus from the Oval Office.

There is a sense this White House moves from one news cycle to the next to shape public opinion – which brings us to Mr. Obama’s press availability just prior to his first Cabinet meeting of the year this past Tuesday morning. After noting that he was looking forward to working with Republicans and Democrats, President Obama made the following startling declaration:

But one of the things that I’ll be emphasizing in this meeting is the fact that we’re not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help that they need. I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone—and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions that move the ball forward in helping to make sure that our businesses are getting the kind of support and help they need to grow and advance to make sure that people are getting the skills that the need to get those jobs that our businesses are creating.”

Every president since our founding in 1789 has utilized executive orders—directives issued to personnel within the executive branch by the president of the United States in his capacity as head of this branch of government. These orders must be specifically linked to his executive authority and must not contradict a statute passed by Congress. Given these parameters, it remains difficult to see how President Obama may safely navigate within the limits of the Constitution to ensure businesses receive support to grow and that people receive the skills they need to obtain jobs. Just yesterday, while delivering remarks at North Carolina State University, Obama noted, “Where I can act without Congress, I’m going to do so.”

Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution provides the president:

“Shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”

But there is a difference between the president offering up his legislative wish list to the Congress, which he will do in his State of the Union address on January 28, versus taking unilateral action that Mr. Obama judges to be necessary and expedient. Perhaps the president thinks we don’t pay attention to his words and deeds—how else can one explain Obama’s seemingly contradicting himself on the limits of his executive power just months ago?

During a fundraising speech in San Francisco last November, President Obama responded to a heckler who interrupted his remarks by shouting “Executive Order” to overcome Republican opposition to his policies on Capitol Hill. First, Obama offered that there is “no short-cut to democracy” and that he could not utilize executive orders to bypass Congress.

More specifically, the president continued by saying: “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 nullify Congress’…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 shortcut to democracy.”

So which President Obama are we supposed to believe? The one who specifically noted that there is no shortcut to democracy and that the Constitution establishes separation of powers amongst the three co-equal branches of government? Or the Obama who boasted that where he could act without Congress he would do so utilizing his pen and a phone?

Rhetorically, the president is back in his comfort zone—campaigning and using catchy slogans to rally his Democratic base. As far as a coherent governing style is concerned, however, this approach seeks to galvanize Obama’s supporters at the expense of finding ways to bring differing viewpoints together on either end of Capitol Hill to govern effectively. If President Obama’s actions thus far in 2014 are any indication, we are in for three more years of poll-tested slogan soundbites from the current occupant of the Oval Office rather than sober, deliberate discussions on how to advance the interests of these United States of America—interests that have become more polarized rather than united during his tenure in office.