Shift on Executive Power Lets President Obama Bypass Rivals

In recent months, the Obama administration has been increasingly seeking ways to act without Congress.

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.” Photo: Pete Souza/The White House

Last fall President Barack Obama interrupted a White House strategy meeting to raise an issue not on the agenda. He declared that the administration needed to more aggressively use executive power to govern in the face of Congressional obstructionism, writes The New York Times.

“We had been attempting to highlight the inability of Congress to do anything,” recalled William M. Daley, 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,” he said.

For President Obama, that meeting became a turning point. As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama had criticized George W. Bush for flouting the role of Congress.

Then during his first two years in the White House, when Democrats controlled Congress, Obama largely worked through the legislative process to achieve his domestic policy goals.

But in recent months, the administration has been seeking ways to act without Congress, tells MSNBC. 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, raising fuel economy standards, preventing drug shortages, curbing domestic violence and others.

President Obama has not once 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.”

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.

A lot of conservatives have critisized  Obama’s new approach.

At the same time, William G. Howell, a University of Chicago political science professor and author of “Power Without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action,” said that President Obama’s use of executive power to advance domestic policies that could not pass Congress was not new.

However, he said, because of Barack 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,” 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,” he said.

Barack 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.

“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.”

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