My guess is you have already heard and seen enough about President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. What with Facebook, Twitter, at least three Republican responses, hours of cacophonous debate on cable news — not to mention the annoying new fad of major newspapers to clutter up their online news reports with dozens of reader comments — this speech may have set some kind of record. That would not be for its content but for the extent to which it has been regurgitated endlessly on a record number of media platforms.
That said, if you are still with me, let me ask your indulgence. I would like to offer some historical context to the major theme of most of the coverage of the speech — that frustrated by five years of Republican obstructionism the president was going to “go it alone.” As he described it himself, wherever possible he would start using his own executive authority to break legislative stalemates.
What got the most attention was his plan to issue an executive order to raise the minimum wage paid by federal contractors to $10.10 per hour. As this will apply only to future contracts, it will take time to have much impact, and even then the effects will be modest. Still, even the prospects of increasing the use of executive orders has sent the president’s critics howling that such orders are unconstitutional.
House Speaker John Boehner implied as much even before the speech, saying, “We’re going to watch very closely, because there’s a Constitution that we all take an oath to, including him [President Obama] and following that Constitution is the basis for our republic, and we shouldn’t put that in jeopardy,” That was among the more moderate reactions among Republicans.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, speaking for the Republican State Attorneys General Association, said, “Choosing to circumvent our legislative process and govern through executive power not only violates our constitutional system of checks and balances, but it poses a direct threat to our liberty.”
And according to a New York Times report on Social Media coverage of the speech, this message on Twitter was sent out by Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas) : “On the floor of house waitin on ‘Kommandant-In-Chief’… the Socialist dictator who’s been feeding US a line or is it ‘A-lying” (sic).
Republicans legislators are reported to be considering legal maneuvers to block executive orders, and some are even taking about impeachment.
For the record, in his first term President Obama issued 147 executive orders. In their first terms President George W. Bush signed 173, President Bill Clinton 200 and President Ronald Reagan 213. There have been about 13,000 executive orders going back to George Washington, and in recent times, only two of them have been reversed by the courts. (Incumbent presidents have the power to nullify executive orders of their predecessors, and sometimes do when they are from different political parties.)
Presidential executive orders do not carry the weight of enacted laws. But in American history there have been executive orders that have had real impact on the country. To my mind these two were the most significant.
President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued Jan. 1, 1863. As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in her book “Team of Rivals” — a portion of which formed the basis of the Steven Spielberg film “Lincoln” — by January of 1865, “Nothing on the home front engaged Lincoln with greater urgency than the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery. He had long feared (his proclamation) would be discarded once the war came to an end. … The passing of a constitutional amendment eradicating slavery once and for all would be a ‘King’s cure for all the evils.’”
Lincoln lived to see the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution passed by the Congress, and it was adopted in December 1865 after ratification by the requisite number of states. However, it’s notable that if Congress had not passed this amendment based on his executive order emancipating the slaves — while Lincoln was still alive and before the Civil War ended — it is very much an open question as to how the issue of slavery would have been resolved, after the war was over and he had been assassinated.
On Feb. 2, 1948, (66 years ago today) President Harry Truman sent a civil rights message to Congress that, among other things, said, “I have instructed the secretary of defense to take steps to have the remaining instances of discrimination in the armed forces eliminated as rapidly as possible.” Six months later on July 26, he issued executive order 9981 which states, “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the President that there shall be equal treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, religion, or national origin.”
There was huge push back from the military leadership. The popular World War II General Omar Bradley, then the Army chief of staff, said that desegregation would come to the military when it becomes a fact in the rest of American society. In a sense he wasn’t far wrong. It would be six years before the last black unit in the military was abolished. And it would take 15 years before Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara declared that it was now the military’s duty to end off-base discrimination detrimental to black servicemen.
Nevertheless, in the 1948 presidential elections, African-Americans in the North immediately rewarded Truman for his historic executive order by overwhelmingly turning out to vote for him. Even at that, he only carried Ohio and Illinois by a slim 1 percent. Evidently, without the heavy black vote Truman would have lost the election. And if Republican Thomas Dewey had won in ’48, what would General Dwight Eisenhower have done in ’52? Might he have run — and won — as a Democrat? Intriguing questions. All we know is that certain presidential executive orders have significantly shaped the course of American history.
Barrie Dunsmore is a former foreign correspondent for ABC News. He lives in Charlotte.MORE IN Perspective
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