I didn’t watch the State of the Union.
I was too busy playing with my son and doing an Insanity workout with my wife. I’ve started trying to fast from news and social media every Tuesday to spend more time on other things and I’m noticing that I don’t miss much. News doesn’t happen that fast and I might add Thursdays and maybe even Saturdays to the mix.
So on Wednesday I decided to listen to last year’s speech and this year’s speech back-to-back to get more perspective and detach myself even further from its fleeting role in the useless daily news cycle (h/t @NickSacco55).
It was amusing to hear Obama talk in 2013 about protecting us from hackers who “infiltrate private e-mail” - right before we learned the NSA was doing just that – but I mostly noticed how little the speech changed in 2014. Same congratulatory statistics about oil output and manufacturing jobs and the Affordable Care Act. Same hopes to do something about gun control and climate change (though mentioning fewer specific climate disasters after a less disastrous year). Same misguided economic calls to equalize pay and raise the minimum wage (apparently $10.10 is better than last year’s $9).
And, yes, the same appeals to Congress to pass the bills he wants and the same promises to circumvent them if they don’t play along.
Of course, this didn’t stop the right-wing outrage machine from declaring the Glorious Appearing of Obama the Dictator. Our patron saint of hyperbole, Glenn Beck, said “every American should write in those diaries that this was the State of the Union where our President declared he would become America’s first dictator” because “he said he would use his executive power to get his way” and “simply seize control and do whatever he wants to do.”
Beck is claiming that this week we saw a uniquely frightening emergence of a presidential dictator. But Beck is wrong, and so are his thousands of listeners, commenters, and sharers. In fact, they’re triply wrong.
1. Obama does not see himself as an all-powerful dictator.
Obama said, “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.” Potentially frightening expansion of power, sure. But that was right after saying “Some [steps] require Congressional action.”
Obama is talking about using his executive power to do things, but that list of things clearly does not include anything that requires Congress. That’s why Obama said he would issue an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors, but he called on Congress to pass a bill for the rest of America because he knows he can’t do that! If Obama really said he would “do whatever he wants to do” to “get his way,” why did he keep asking Congress to pass the bills he wants?
Let’s also not forget Obama’s recent New Yorker interview, where he recognized that
“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 basically nullify Congress.’ …Before everybody starts clapping, 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 shortcut to politics, and there’s no shortcut to democracy.”
Maybe those are just words, but maybe so were his other words. Maybe we should look at his actions, instead. After all, even if Obama doesn’t think he has unlimited power, he still may think he has a lot more than we want him to. But is that something new that’s worth writing down in our diaries?
2. Obama has already been circumventing Congress.
It takes a short memory to conclude that Obama’s 2014 SOTU speech indicated some new expansion of power. Just last year, Obama said that “if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future” to curtail climate change. He celebrated “a new executive order that will strengthen our cyber defenses.” And while Obama only begged Congress to vote on background checks in his 2013 address, Biden had talked about “executive action that can be taken.”
Yet somehow some of the same conservatives who freaked out in 2013 that Obama was getting ready to ban all guns by executive order are now freaking out that in 2014 Obama just now declared his dictatorship! I suspect these conservatives reconcile their cognitive dissonance with a classic Appeal to the Future. Obama has always been about to do terrible things, but when those things never actually come (pretty sure I can still buy a gun at Wal-mart), they just forget about it and move on to the next terrible thing. Now he’s gonna be a dictator. Any day now!
Obama issued 147 executive orders in his first term. Maybe we should focus on how bad all of those actually may be instead of living in a bizarro world where he hasn’t issued any but he’s about to issue some really bad ones!
3. Lots of presidents have been circumventing Congress.
But not only is “going around Congress” nothing new for Obama, it’s nothing new for presidents in general! In fact, Obama issued fewer first-term executive orders than George W. Bush (173), Bill Clinton (200), George H. W. Bush (166), Ronald Reagan (213), Jimmy Carter (320!), Gerald Ford (169), Richard Nixon (247), Lyndon B. Johnson (325!), John F. Kennedy (214), Dwight D. Eisenhower (266), and Harry S. Truman (504!!).
Now all executive orders are not created equal, and executive orders aren’t the only way a President can expand the power of the executive branch, but it’s a decent proxy to show that Presidents have been expanding their power for a really long time, and even in recent years, I think it’s pretty difficult to claim that Obama has expanded the power of the Presidency more than George W. Bush did from 2000 to 2008.
It’s actually a pretty good litmus test for partisan demagoguery to see which executive orders you freak out about. Believing that Obama is the first president to just now start doing whatever he wants is wrong on every possible level.
Of course, the expansion of presidential power is a huge issue of legitimate concern. But the frustrating irony of the triple-fail partisan freakout is that this myopia is the very thing that allows such expansion to occur. It strains the credibility of the “obstructionist” opposition that justifies the expansion to the other side. Too may conservatives gave Bush a pass on his CIA droning and NSA spying and TSA checkpointing just as too many liberals have given Obama a pass on his entrenchment of all three.
Thus as Obama talks about wielding executive powers, too few on either side pressure him to unilaterally limit the very abuses he has the power to undo – the liberals because they’re ignoring it and the conservatives because it would force them to admit that Obama’s already been wielding powers that Bush started in the first place. So we don’t ask for specifics on Obama’s vague platitudes about “prudent limits on the use of drones” and “reform” of “our surveillance programs” because we’re too busy freaking out about the more attractive soundbytes about “where I can take steps without legislation.”
The above cartoon is more amusing and less hysterical than the Beckian outrage, but it conveniently ignores that Obama still talked about going through Congress on many things, that he’s already been ignoring Congress on other things, and that he’s not doing anything that different from pretty much all of his predecessors.
But partisan demagoguery can’t handle that much truth.