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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Obama on Executive Power

In February 2011, President Barak Obama directed the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of gay 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.”

While not defying Congressional statutes, the use of executive power to thwart defending a statute violates the enforcement function of the executive branch. The other matters—enacting environmental regulations, granting relief to some illegal immigrants, and issuing state waivers presumably were under broader statutes that permit administrative action by the executive branch. The danger, however, is that the enforcement branch or arm could become a legislative branch or arm of the U.S. Government.

The irony is that Barak Obama had criticized George W. Bush’s use of signing statements. The New York Times points out that the institutional incentives of the presidency had come to affect even Obama. This is an extremely significant point, for it suggests that “elections have consequences” is buffered by the institutional trappings of the particular office.

For example, as the E.U. was struggling to manage the debt of some large states by pressing for austerity budget cuts at the state level, it was feared that state office-holders would be elected who had promised to leave the euro and reject the austerity. From the example of Obama on executive power, we can say that such fear was over-stated.  A Euroskeptic once in office is subject to pressure from other states as well as from E.U. officials. The consequent backtracking is typically viewed as political fear. I contend that it is merely a natural reaction to the incentives of a given office and institutional placement (i.e., as a state in the E.U.).

Rather than being hypocrites,  office-holders who said one thing on the campaign trail but then modified their position once in office can be said to be shifting from campaigning to governing—the latter being subject to the institutional incentives of the office. The breadth of campaign proposals is almost necessarily to be wider than the actual conduct of office-holders because the “mandates” of an office have a converging effect because the office itself does not change.

Obama could have campaigned as an anti-executive candidate, but once he was sworn in he became an executive and thus had to function as one. His anti-executive campaign promises would translate at best on the margins of his governing decisions.  Hence, “real change” on the campaign trail is one thing, but change by office-holders is notoriously incremental by nature of the continuance of the respective offices. In other words, the status quo is the clear favorite where a government of offices has already been established. For “real change,” governmental change must also be included, and that cannot come from extant offices.

Generally speaking, what we take as change—what we expect in this regard from our elected office-holders—is only a very moderated sense of change. Put another way, we expect too much out of existing offices. If we want “real change” in terms of policy, we must also look at structural change of the government.


Charlie Savage, “Shift onExecutive Power Lets Obama Bypass Rivals,” The New York Times, April 22, 2012.