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President Obama’s Go-It-Alone Strategy

John Sivolella: The absence of Congress in critical policy making can be dangerous, and its consequences may become evident soon. (Isaac Brekken/AP)
John Sivolella: The absence of Congress in critical policy making can be dangerous, and its consequences may become evident soon. (Isaac Brekken/AP)
This article is more than 5 years old.

Could President Barack Obama’s recent executive actions on immigration affect the Administration’s negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear program? Perhaps.

Obama has established a playbook by using an array of tools to aggressively exercise executive power and evade congressional constraints to unilaterally shift federal policy and achieve short-term political goals.

This strategy can have complex consequences with mixed results in the long term for the Administration — and the nation.

Obama’s executive actions on immigration are only his most recent, and high profile, wielding of power in hotly contested policy areas.

For instance, in the wake of the Newtown shootings shortly before being sworn in for a second term, Obama announced a sweeping package of unilateral changes to federal gun-control policy, justifying it partially by exclaiming that he could not wait for Congress to act. Like the recent changes to immigration enforcement, this announcement led to some confusion in the media and to emotional claims by opponents that Obama had overreached.

Obama’s executive actions on immigration are only his most recent, and high profile, wielding of power in hotly contested policy areas.

In each case, however, the package designed by the Obama Administration to implement the broad policy strokes of its principal’s rhetoric comprised a potpourri of presidential directives to executive agencies. Many of them were not legally controversial. And they conspicuously did not include any executive orders, despite a misunderstanding in the media — as amplified in popular culture like Saturday Night Live — that Obama simply issued an edict to change the law.

The Administration used a similar strategy of evading Congress in foreign relations recently when it cut a deal with China after months of “secret” (i.e. leaving Congress out of the loop) negotiations for both countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This bilateral agreement, though, is not a treaty and is not binding under international law. Obama would need bipartisan support — at least 2/3 of the U.S. Senate — to ratify a treaty. It is, instead, a set of promises between the two nations to take future actions toward their emissions goals with little more than their good words, and international political pressure, to motivate compliance.

In the short term, Obama’s go-it-alone strategy brings some benefits. It is difficult to overturn, despite Congress’s huffing and puffing, because the legal mechanisms Obama uses are diverse and often mundane exercises of the executive’s powers under the Constitution to direct federal agencies to implement laws. In addition, the unilateral exercise of power is an effective means of moving policy and reconditioning bureaucratic behavior — whether in high-profile settings involving primetime speeches on immigration, or in relative anonymity like requesting in a memorandum that the Department of Health and Human Services prohibit hospitals from denying gay partners visitation rights.

The strategy is addicting because it provides an immediate, intense political hit to the base while also placing an issue on the agenda for the 2016 presidential campaign, whether the prospective candidates like it or not.

Nevertheless, there are myriad problems with the strategy.

Many of the changes made through these unilateral exercises can be reversed easily by a successor administration. Moreover, Obama, believe it or not, was circumspect in the application of his power, so expectations of policy changes may exceed reality. Interest groups and activists tend to get this already, and some have actually argued that Obama didn’t go far enough.

This strategy also reflects a certain fatalism. Each of the high-profile actions is an acknowledgment that Obama cannot, or will not, compromise with Congress for comprehensive and lasting policy change.

This is where the negotiations with Iran become relevant.

What distinguishes Obama’s action on immigration from his similar efforts on gun control, for example, was that it came shortly after mid-term elections where his party was beaten in historical proportions. The action seemed to reek of anger, and a president acting out of anger often makes bad decisions. It was also a direct challenge to, and sign of contempt for, the incoming GOP-controlled Congress.

In the short term, Obama may have written off working with the new Congress during his final two years in office. But he will need them to cooperate if he expects to reach an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program — because he can’t manage that unilaterally.

The critical difference between the China deal and the Iran negotiations is that the agreement on emissions is a first step in a process. Both sides have time to see if the other conforms to the agreement and meets their respective emissions reduction deadlines. The agreement also opens the door to further multilateral negotiations and perhaps someday to a ratified treaty. Those are a long way off, but there is time for the strategy to play out.

In contrast, time is of the essence for the Administration to reach a deal with Iran. Its centrifuges whirl as the negotiations drag on and our allies in the region — Israel in particular — grow more anxious.

The [immigration] action seemed to wreak of anger, and a president acting out of anger often makes bad decisions.

In order for Iran to agree to a permanent multilateral accord, it must believe the negotiating positions of the Administration have staying power. That is, Iran must have confidence that Obama will convince the new Congress to agree to lift sanctions, and perhaps ratify a treaty, based on a deal he cuts. It must also believe that a deal is sustainable beyond Obama’s final two years in office, even though most GOP candidates and the leading Democratic candidate for president have already expressed a hard line on Iran’s key negotiating position involving centrifuges.

The support of a GOP-controlled Senate would therefore be an excellent bargaining chip for the Administration. But what are the odds of that now that Obama has acted unilaterally on immigration during a lame duck period? Pretty minimal, of course.

Where does this dysfunctional inter-branch relationship leave the Administration, and U.S. allies such as Israel, with respect to Iran’s nuclear program?

The president must be careful what he wishes for. The absence of Congress in critical policy making can be dangerous, and its consequences may become evident soon with regard to Iran.


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John Sivolella Cognoscenti contributor
John Sivolella is on the faculty at Columbia University, where he teaches about the presidency, federal agencies and public policy.

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