The President and His Executive Orders

Thomas Hobbes, author of The Leviathan

A common misconception in American politics, often unknowingly  perpetuated by the media, is the idea that executive action is the same thing as executive order. In fact, when a President issues an executive action it is effectively the President calling on Congress to do something, but it holds no legal authority and has no binding nature. On the other hand, executive orders “are legally binding and published in the Federal Register, though they also can be reversed by the courts and Congress.” The ability to differentiate between the two forms of Presidential decree is extremely important if one wishes to understand the battle underway in Washington between President Obama and newly formed GOP majority Congress. Only weeks following the midterm elections, politicians have already entered into partisan gridlock on the issue of immigration reform. The Obama administration has vowed to move forward with executive order on the topic, which includes plans to extend deferred action (which basically prevents deportation) to illegal immigrants which would allow millions to become permanent residents of the U.S. The news of the President’s plans have evoked major criticism and backlash from the GOP. Critics have highlighted what they see as the President by-passing Congress in an unconstitutional attempt to legislate his own agenda. As the President faces off with Congress, it occurred to me that Thomas Hobbes’s concept of the all powerful sovereign has somehow indirectly found its way into contemporary American political debate. 

The power of the President to issue executive order is grounded in the Constitution and is an important part of the power of the Executive branch. With that said, when the President uses them to further a political agenda on a topic which should be addressed by Congress, political tempers flair. Hobbes believed that the only way to ensure adherence to social contracts, which would create a commonwealth, was for its members to sacrifice certain rights and liberties in order for a single ruler to be appointed who would ensure everyone hold up their end of the bargain. This ruler, dubbed the sovereign, is most recognizable in the form of a monarch, yet we see the memory of authoritative rule entering the political discussion. Republicans are mulling the idea of suing the President over the immigration order and some hardliners within the ranks have even brought up impeachment. These ideas all stem from a viewpoint that Obama is acting like a tyrant or as Rep. Steven King (R-Iowa) said, “”The audacity of this President to think he can completely destroy the rule of law with the stroke of a pen is unfathomable to me”.

President Obama faces off against Congressional Republicans led by Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner

How is it that in 21st century America, the country that is supposed to represent the complete opposite of a monarchy, we can even be having this argument where one branch of government sees the other as assuming power it does not have. When looking in history we see Presidents like Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon as individuals who  saw the Office of the President as the most powerful in the nation, overstepping the traditional boundaries set forth in the Constitution and in law. Jackson used his office with such power that he became known by opponents as King Andrew and Nixon famously believed that “When the President does it, that means it’s not illegal”. By no means am I comparing Obama’s actions to these previous Presidents, in fact this piece is not meant to judge, agree or disagree with, either Congress or President Obama. I wrote about this issue because I see it as another example of Hobbes’s sovereign concept finding its way into American politics. Obama believes he’s doing the right thing and many agree with him, but what is unquestionable in my opinion is, in any instance of executive order which in any way by-passes Congress’s constitutional authority, whether justifiable or not, the President is expanding the power of the Executive. Whether you like it or not with every expansion of executive authority, the Office of the President wields more and more monarchial power, even in the slightest, most unrecognizable ways. The Executive branch is supposed to set policy and enforce laws, so when a President uses executive order to institute law, which his office then enforces, we enter tricky territory.