Brookings Scholars on Obama’s Use of Executive Action

But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still, and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do. 
President Barack Obama, 1/28/14

In his State of the Union Address, President Obama said that while he was eager to work with Congress, he would take “steps without legislation to expand opportunity” for American families. Many critics have interpreted this as executive overreach. Here is what some Brookings scholars have said about President Obama’s statements.

Appearing on WBUR’s “On Point” with Tom Ashbrook today, David Wessel, director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy, said that as a tool to address inequality and the economy, President Obama:

can do very little with executive control. And in fact it’s not clear what we can do even if he can get legislation through that would make a big difference in the short run. I think he’s trying to make the best of a bad situation, take advantage of the fact that there does seem to be sentiment in the country to raise the minimum wage. Unable to get Congress to do it he went and did the very symbolic thing of raising it for some employees of federal contractors.

Listen to the full interview, where Wessel and panelists talk about this issue, the minimum wage hike, the deficit, immigration, and Ben Bernanke’s last day as Fed chairman.

Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director for the Metropolitan Policy Program, wrote on the “virtues of ‘small ball’ in times of gridlock.” As Muro put it:

while the scale of the president’s new initiatives is undeniably modest, and while the president’s pen can only deliver so much unless it’s signing a bill, it’s worth noting certain virtues of “small ball” in times of gridlock. To be sure, there are major limits to what administrative actions can achieve. However, on the minimum wage, on a school modernization item, and on the manufacturing institutes, a gritty kind of outside-the-beltway survival strategy deserves respect. …

The Obama administration has realized that, to get anything done at all, it will have to break with business-as-usual and try to tap other circuits of change elsewhere in the country.

After the speech, Elaine Kamarck, director of the Center for Effective Public Management, asked “Can President Obama get anything done?” Kamarck explained the limits and possibilities of executive orders, budgets, and regulatory powers. She concluded:

The Founding Fathers made it very difficult for a President to go it alone, no matter how much he would like to make the next year a “year of action.” So it is peculiar that in the run up to the State of the Union, the White House allowed the “I will get things done without Congress” line to be the dominant theme. The President’s actual speech was, in fact, much less provocative. Nonetheless by the time he delivered it – the alert had gone out. Unless something changes inside the Republican Party in Congress, expect them to fight the President over every manifestation of Presidential power, (whether executive orders, budget adjustments or regulations) with all the intensity they’ve mustered in the past opposing legislation. By next year’s State of the Union, the Congress may be in the throes of opposing a presidential proclamation establishing National Girl Scout Week. Just for the heck of it.

John Hudak, managing editor of the FixGov blog, offered this about the frequency of President Obama’s executive orders:  

Kamarck put it this way:

And Wessel highlighted something that Kamarck had also pointed out:

Finally, Peter Singer, director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, offered this about cybersecurity:

Get all State of the Union coverage from Brookings here.