How President Obama Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Executive Power

In today’s NYT, Charlie Savage reports on how President Obama evolved from a fierce critic of unilateral exercise of executive power to a proponent.

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.”

This is not a new phenomenon. Both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush relied upon executive authority to advance policy initiatives Congress failed to enact, though sometimes these efforts were rebuffed in court. What’s interesting, notes political science professor William G. Howell in the story, is President Obama’s transformation on the issue.

Some of the President’s initiatives involve aggressive assertions of executive authority, many of which are likely to be challenged in court. The D.C. Circuit is currently mulling the legality of the Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to rewrite the Clean Air Act with its “tailoring rule” and a lawsuit is pending against the President’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. Other initiatives, such as the imposition of conditions on waivers from No Child Left Behind’s requirements, may be more difficult to challenge.

The story also talks about the politics of the President’s actions.

The unilateralist strategy carries political risks. Mr. Obama cannot blame the Republicans when he adopts policies that liberals oppose, like when he overruled the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to strengthen antismog rules or decided not to sign an order banning discrimination by federal contractors based on sexual orientation.

The approach also exposes Mr. Obama to accusations that he is concentrating too much power in the White House. Earlier this year, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, delivered a series of floor speeches accusing Mr. Obama of acting “more and more like a king that the Constitution was designed to replace” and imploring colleagues of both parties to push back against his “power grabs.”

But Democratic lawmakers have been largely quiet; many of them accuse Republicans of engaging in an unprecedented level of obstructionism and say that Mr. Obama has to do what he can to make the government work. The pattern adds to a bipartisan history in which lawmakers from presidents’ own parties have tended not to object to invocations of executive power.