It’s 2016! This year, we’ll elect the next president of the United States, and it may even be the first time many of Stanford’s current undergraduates vote for president. However, while the likes of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, John Ellis Bush and the rest of the bunch compete for our attention, our current president is making all the headlines.
President Obama’s first term will mostly be remembered for the stimulus package and the Affordable Care Act. Both were monumental (and controversial) pieces of legislation with supporters and critics abounding, but they were passed by Congress and signed into law. No matter how many times Donald Trump or any of the other GOP candidates claim they will repeal Obamacare and replace it with something better, it is unlikely the current healthcare system will actually be completely upheaved and an entirely new system implemented. The more likely outcome with a Republican president would be for Congress to pass small legislative adjustments to the current policy, such as the removal of the “Cadillac tax” to bring the current system closer to its envisioned alternative.
On the other hand, President Obama’s second term will be defined not as much by the bills he has successfully pushed and signed as by the executive actions he has taken to achieve his agenda. On immigration, foreign policy, climate change and (most recently) gun control, President Obama has acted unilaterally to bypass Congress to get things done. Is that Constitutional? Well, that’s for the Supreme Court to decide on a case-by-case basis.
The president cannot agree to international treaties without the Senate’s consent, but the Iran Deal and the Paris Agreement were not “treaties,” per se. The president also cannot write new laws, but the executive actions taken to address immigration and gun control could be viewed as selections of legislation already passed by Congress that the president would like to see enforced less or more stringently. For the most part, President Obama’s actions have been within his authority, so why has there been so much uproar from the right?
In the last couple of days, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan called the president’s recent action on gun control “a dangerous level of executive overreach” while Chairman of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus declared that Obama “has routinely overstepped his constitutional authority to force his policies on the American people.”
The argument that President Obama’s reliance on executive action sets a dangerous precedent is legitimate: The notion of circumventing Congress to achieve an agenda, though it may be Constitutionally legal in practice, probably does go against the intentions of the founders of this nation. But it should be noted that this argument is politically convenient for the Republican Party to adopt at this moment in time because the agenda being achieved through “executive overreach” is that of a Democratic president. The legislative and executive branches of government were intended to work hand-in-hand to govern and to check each other’s power. However, today’s unprecedented partisan polarization has led to gridlock and inaction. Lately, President Obama has felt compelled to take action on issues when Congress won’t do anything.
The true motivation for the uproar on the right has less to do with the methods and more to do with the issues. A few weeks ago, President Obama announced the achievement of a historic international agreement to combat climate change. The United States delegation at the climate conference sidestepped the requirement for Senate approval of treaties by ensuring that the agreement would not be a binding treaty and that the demands asked of the United States could all be met by policies already in place (such as the EPA’s Clean Power Plan). Similarly, the gun control reform announced Tuesday does not create any new laws but rather requires laws already in existence to be enforced more strictly (such as background checks).
Those on the left would argue that these measures are not enough. Climate change will not be adequately addressed unless we sharply increase our mitigation commitment and substantially fund less developed countries, and background checks are a good first step but not singularly sufficient to reduce the unparalleled amount of gun violence in the United States.
But those on the right decry these recent executive actions because the policies conflict with their party’s world view — addressing climate change should not be made a priority, and any form of gun control might infringe on Americans’ second amendment rights. There are clear partisan divides on each issue today, and executive actions taken by President Obama will always face opposition from the right for their substance alone.
President Obama might be acting like a Democratic dictator, but let’s not kid ourselves. Republicans are furious with him because he’s a Democrat, not because he’s a dictator.
The 2016 election will be a referendum of Obama’s second-term executive actions: the nuclear deal, climate change, gun control. A Republican president can unilaterally undo the bulk of all of them, while a Democrat will likely leave them in place.
The election of another Democratic president may encourage the two parties to reconsider their current approach of blanket opposition and unwillingness to compromise, but if it doesn’t, Americans are likely to continue to see an adversarial climate between a Democratic executive and Republican legislature, leaving us with more executive measures that are opposed by the right and insufficient for the left. If a Republican is elected, the GOP will have unbridled control of the federal government.
The options may seem bleak, but those are our choices. Now it’s up to America to decide.
Contact Ruairí Arrieta-Kenna at ruairi ‘at’ stanford.edu.