HONOLULU — President Barack Obama rang in 2014 by declaring a “year of action,” vowing to strengthen the nation by focusing on fairness, competitiveness and the power of American diplomacy. Since Congress seemed unwilling to help, the president said he’d act alone.
On immigration, climate change and U.S.-Cuba relations, at least, Obama stayed true to his word, reshaping on his own decades of American policy he argued had outlived its time. In a flurry of executive decrees taken over the heads of lawmakers, Obama added major notches to his legacy and tackled important issues for key support groups.
He also angered Republican lawmakers along the way and suffered a crushing midterm election defeat.
“America does not stand still, and neither will I,” Obama said in his State of the Union address in January.
All told, Obama issued more than 80 executive actions and related measures this year, according to a report by the White House Monday compiling the president’s memoranda, orders and directives to federal agencies. Many were designed to use existing laws to meet new objectives, accomplishing what Congress couldn’t or wouldn’t get done through new legislation.
Yet other initiatives fell flat, never took off or had only modest impact. These were particularly the case with Obama’s economic agenda, where the president’s ability to act unilaterally was largely limited to small-bore steps like creating regional manufacturing hubs, new student loan payment options and higher federal contractors’ wages. Although the economy improved measurably in 2014, it was unclear what role Obama’s actions played.
“This was a year of near-zero accomplishment on the legislative front — the way the government that James Madison designed is supposed to work,” said William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who served under President Bill Clinton. “On the other hand, it was a year in which the president took surprisingly large steps through the exercise of his executive authority.”
After being stymied by Congress on climate change for much of his presidency, Obama went on the offensive this year. He set unprecedented greenhouse gas limits on power plants despite the energy industry saying the restrictions would shutter coal plants across the country. He directed the government to increase fuel standards for trucks and protected major swaths of U.S. waters. In Beijing last month, Obama sealed a historic climate agreement with China after secret negotiations.
On immigration, too, Obama took matters into his own hands. After his party’s heavy losses in November, Obama shielded from deportation some 4 million people in the U.S. without legal status. The action elicited GOP lawsuits and even impeachment threats. Obama then sent shockwaves across the hemisphere by restoring U.S. diplomatic ties with Cuba after more than a half-century of estrangement.
On other fronts, the president could only do so much. He sought promises from community groups, universities and the private sector to expand high-tech education and boost key sectors, with no guarantee they’d follow through. He is still looking for ways to fulfill a $3 billion pledge to a global climate fund. Hiking the salaries of federal contractors failed to spur Congress to raise the national minimum wage, although 14 states did so this year.
By acting alone, Obama has also assumed an inherent risk. Nearly all of these steps can be reversed by his successor.
Jeff Zients, a top Obama adviser, said Obama’s executive actions would be sustained, arguing they were being “hard-wired” into the economy.
Obama’s aides say acting without Congress was never the president’s preferred approach, but one forced upon him by the inability of lawmakers to pass far-reaching legislation. Republican lawmakers say his inclination to impose his will has created deep mistrust, poisoning the atmosphere for compromise during Obama’s final two years.
“The president needs to listen to the American people, who want us to work together on their priorities — especially jobs and the economy,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. “Instead, he still seems intent on a ‘go-it-alone’ strategy that stretches — or exceeds — the limits of his constitutional authority.”
With Republicans taking full control of Congress next month, Obama will face stepped-up efforts to rein in his authority.
Obama seems ready for the fight.
“There’s no shortage of ideas here,” Zients, the National Economic Council director, said in an interview. “By no means is the president done.”