The Next President’s Power Play

Regardless of who wins in November, Obama’s successor plans to wield executive authority to achieve policy goals.

Already in this young year, Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates have de­cried Pres­id­ent Obama’s use of ex­ec­ut­ive power—this time for his plan to uni­lat­er­ally tight­en gun back­ground checks.

But many of the GOP hope­fuls have also made clear they would be will­ing to wield the pres­id­en­tial pen them­selves if elec­ted—wheth­er to go around Con­gress and make new policy, or simply to roll back the Obama ac­tions they most des­pise.

This week­end, New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie said on Fox that the pres­id­ent is be­hav­ing like “a petu­lant child” who wants to act like a “king” or “dic­tat­or,” be­fore char­ging that the ex­pec­ted ac­tions were il­leg­al. At a Mis­sis­sippi rally, Don­ald Trump said, “There’s an as­sault on the Second Amend­ment.” And Sen. Marco Ru­bio told a New Hamp­shire crowd that Obama has “waged war on the Con­sti­tu­tion.” They all pledged to re­verse the ex­pec­ted move—Ru­bio on Day One and Trump “so fast”—through ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion.

The fight over the na­tion’s gun laws is just the latest ex­ample in a series of battles over Obama’s use of his pen and phone. For a year, Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ates have prom­ised to roll back the past sev­en years—Con­gress be damned—par­tic­u­larly in the realms of im­mig­ra­tion, for­eign af­fairs, and en­vir­on­ment­al policy.

Per­haps the most severe ex­ample of how a Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate would at­tempt to stretch the powers of the Oval Of­fice is Don­ald Trump on the is­sue of im­mig­ra­tion. Over the ob­jec­tions of new House Speak­er Paul Ry­an and Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell, Trump says he would tem­por­ar­ily bar all Muslims from the coun­try. While many leg­al ex­perts call the act blatantly un­con­sti­tu­tion­al, oth­ers, such as the Uni­versity of Chica­go Law School’s Eric Pos­ner, have ar­gued that he wouldn’t need to ask Con­gress to block non­cit­izen Muslims. An­oth­er of Trump’s ex­traordin­ar­ily con­tro­ver­sial pledges, to de­port the ap­prox­im­ately 11 mil­lion im­mig­rants who have il­leg­ally come to the U.S, would fun­da­ment­ally change the fab­ric of Amer­ic­an so­ci­ety.

“Does he un­der­stand how his po­lice state would af­fect the coun­try?” asked Mi­chael R. Strain, a res­id­ent schol­ar at the Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, in The Wash­ing­ton Post in Novem­ber. “Apart from the ob­vi­ous ways that have been much dis­cussed—break­ing up fam­il­ies; a massive dis­rup­tion for busi­nesses, schools, churches, com­munit­ies; po­ten­tially turn­ing neigh­bor against neigh­bor—Trump’s power­ful De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cur­ity would al­most surely end up mis­takenly ap­pre­hend­ing and de­tain­ing U.S. cit­izens. And prob­ably de­port­ing some of them, too.”

While the GOP field has roundly sidestepped or de­nounced Trump’s Muslim ban, oth­er can­did­ates have called for re­vers­ing Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion al­low­ing more than 4 mil­lion im­mig­rants who came to the coun­try il­leg­ally live in the U.S. without fear of de­port­a­tion. As Obama at­tempts to save his im­mig­ra­tion over­haul in the courts, can­did­ates such as Sen. Ted Cruz have said the pres­id­ent has “ab­used his ex­ec­ut­ive au­thor­ity and re­fused to en­force the im­mig­ra­tion laws that are cur­rently on the books. 

“I will end the law­less­ness with the stroke of a pen,” adds Cruz on his cam­paign web­site, prom­ising to “use every ounce of my con­sti­tu­tion­al au­thor­ity and ex­ec­ut­ive dis­cre­tion to en­sure [the Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment] en­forces the law in­stead of vi­ol­at­ing it.”

The GOP can­did­ates also hope to re­vert to a pre-Obama en­vir­on­ment­al agenda, as all of them are skep­tic­al of the sci­entif­ic evid­ence be­hind the hu­man caus­a­tion of cli­mate change. Cruz, Ru­bio, and Jeb Bush want to scuttle Obama’s reg­u­lat­ory man­dates to cut car­bon emis­sions from power plants and re­verse his re­jec­tion of the Key­stone pipeline. And re­cently Cruz said that he would pull out of the non­bind­ing, land­mark cli­mate agree­ment struck last month in Par­is, a deal which Ru­bio also ripped as “ri­dicu­lous.”

Not only are top GOP can­did­ates call­ing to re­buff Obama’s ac­tions in the states, they’re also look­ing to change them around the world. Ru­bio wants to re­verse the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s his­tor­ic move open­ing dip­lo­mat­ic re­la­tions with Cuba. Trump would like to des­ig­nate China a cur­rency ma­nip­u­lat­or and bring back wa­ter­board­ing as an de­tain­ee-in­ter­rog­a­tion tool. And Cruz would move the U.S. em­bassy in Is­rael from Tel Aviv to Jer­u­s­alem.

Some changes would be faster than oth­ers. On Day One, Cruz and Ru­bio have said they would tear apart the land­mark nuc­le­ar agree­ment signed by Ir­an, the U.S., Ger­many, France, Great Bri­tain, Rus­sia, and China, which would lim­it Ir­an’s nuc­le­ar pro­gram for over a dec­ade. Ru­bio said he would im­pose sanc­tions on Ir­an that day, while oth­er can­did­ates, in­clud­ing Bush, have pushed for first eval­u­at­ing the ef­fects of the deal, which was struck in Ju­ly.

“Maybe you ought to check in with your al­lies first,” Bush said then. “Maybe you ought to ap­point a sec­ret­ary of State, maybe a sec­ret­ary of De­fense. You might want to have your team in place be­fore you take an act like that.”

Of course, the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates would be will­ing to push their agenda through ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion too. Karl Rove re­cently wrote in The Wall Street Journ­althat Hil­lary Clin­ton would lead Amer­ica in the dir­ec­tion of “ba­nana re­pub­lics,” tight­en­ing gun-show and In­ter­net loop­holes, for­cing fed­er­al gov­ern­ment con­tract­ors and pub­licly traded com­pan­ies to pub­licly dis­close some polit­ic­al spend­ing, pre­vent­ing de­port­a­tion of the young im­mig­rant Dream­ers, and work­ing to pre­vent Amer­ic­an com­pan­ies from mov­ing abroad to take ad­vant­age of lower cor­por­ate tax rates.

Both Clin­ton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, her chief Demo­crat­ic rival, ap­prove of Obama’s planned moves on gun con­trol.

Much of Obama’s leg­acy will be at the mercy of his suc­cessor. Even Obama’s choice to change Mount McKin­ley’s name back to Denali has been knocked by the GOP as ex­ec­ut­ive over­reach; Cruz at the time said it was the “latest mani­fest­a­tion of the me­ga­lo­ma­ni­ac­al, im­per­i­al pres­id­ency.”

In early Septem­ber, Trump said that there’s con­gres­sion­al grid­lock be­cause there’s “no lead­er­ship at the top” and lamen­ted that “sign­ing ex­ec­ut­ive or­ders is not the way our coun­try was sup­posed to be run.”

Per­haps buoyed by his steady po­s­i­tion atop na­tion­al polls, Trump now seems even more eager to wield the ex­ec­ut­ive branch’s far-reach­ing powers over Con­gress. In mid-Decem­ber, he told a South Car­o­lina crowd, “The one good thing about an ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion is that the new pres­id­ent can go in—you don’t have to go through a Con­gress—you can just … go and sign and it’s over.

“It can be un­signed so quickly by the new pres­id­ent, I think prob­ably with­in the first hour,” Trump ad­ded. “It could be with­in about two minutes after I take an oath, as­sum­ing I’m lucky enough.”

(Image via Vacclav/