The State of The Union and Unilateral Executive Action

Last night, President Obama gave his yearly address to a Joint Session of Congress known as the State of the Union.  There was much anticipation about what the president was going to outline for his agenda in 2014, most notable – what he was going to do unilaterally.  Many reported he was going to bypass Congress and try to get initiatives done through executive orders.  Speaker of the House John Boehner had harsh words for the president if this was his plan – “We have a Constitution. We abide by it. If he tries to ignore it, he’s going to run into a brick wall.”

President Obama has a peculiar relationship with Congress and issuing executive orders.  Given the gridlock in Congress, many believe the president has relied heavily on executive orders to bypass the stagnant legislative branch.  Many in Congress fumed when the president issued an executive order to curb carbon pollution.  In David Remnick’s lengthy profile of President Obama in the “New Yorker,” he discusses how hecklers at rallies orated “executive order” in an attempt to assuage the president to bypass congress to get immigration reform and gun control passed.  Remnick writes, quoting President Obama at a speech addressing hecklers, “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.”

President Obama, a former Constitutional Law professor, does have a certain level of respect for the Constitution.  Despite what many Republicans in Congress may say about his utter neglect and eschewing of the document.  The president surprised many last August when, rather than militarily strike Syria, he put it to a vote in Congress.  However, members of Congress are still concerned about the president’s enforcement of the “Take Care” clause of the Constitution and assert he uses too much enforcement discretion.  Republican Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) wrote a scathing op-ed in the Wall Street Journal this morning titled “The Imperial President” in which he insists this president has defied the Constitution and our laws through executive action.

In last night’s State of the Union, the president addressed unilateral action on some issues, but also urged Congress to pass to take action themselves.  The president raised the minimum wage for future federal employees unilaterally but urged Congress to raise the federal minimum wage for everyone else.  President Obama also stated if he could help American families without Congressional action, he would.  Additionally, he hinted at executive action to kick start natural gas facilities in an attempt to curb climate change.  The EPA has been an incredible executive tool, which the president has utilized in recent history – but it has contributed to Republican dissent mainly because the president has used it to address climate change – something many Republicans do not fully buy into yet sighting certain scientific studies.

The most important executive action the president announced last night deals with retirement.  It’s no secret that the state of American retirement is in disarray with fewer and fewer companies offering guaranteed pensions.  President Obama announced that today he would direct the Treasury to develop a new savings initiative for Americans called MyRA.  As the president stated in his address, “Social Security is not enough.”  This is a subtle way for the president to unilaterally address income inequality without touching minimum wage for the general population, which is currently a political football.

The near future is still uncertain in terms of how the Republican Congress in general, and Speaker Boehner in particular, will react to the president’s unilateral action.  It is hard to imagine anymore resistance in Congress to the president’s initiatives but this Congress has a proven track record of lethargy.  President Obama’s vision for the Constitution is no different than any other president who wishes to pass their own initiatives sighting skewed legal arguments to justify their actions.  The bottom line is that as Americans, we are bound by the Constitution, however, this Congress has left little options with its lack of production.  While the president may be, in some instances, out of line in unilateral action, this unilateral action is understandable – but that still does not always make it right.