Jon Meacham was on MSNBC this morning and made a curious remark about presidents and executive orders. To be sure, he didn’t endorse Republican criticisms that executive orders are themselves an outrageous abuse, but Meacham nevertheless suggested Obama was somehow diminished by his reliance on the presidential tool (via Dave Weigel).
For those who can’t watch clips online, the relevant portion came at about the 8:21 mark in the above clip.
“We make fun of the executive orders and that is in fact something that, you know, you never really heard Lincoln and FDR say, ‘I’m going to rebuild America on an executive order. You know, it’s not something that resonates off the tongue.”
I’m not sure what Meacham is referring to, but his assessment appears to be badly mistaken. Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued more executive orders than any president in American history – both in raw numbers and in annual averages – and relied extensively on the presidential tool to implement New Deal reforms during the Great Depression.
As for Lincoln’s reluctance to “rebuild America on an executive order,” let’s not forget that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation – which was an executive order.
So why is it, exactly, “we make fun” of Obama for making use of executive orders?
My point, of course, is not to pick on Meacham, whose work I’ve enjoyed for many years, but rather to highlight the incongruity between criticisms of Obama and his detractors’ familiarity with presidential history.
Indeed, as we discussed yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) insisted that when it comes to executive orders, Obama should follow the examples set by Reagan and Clinton. McConnell is completely unaware of the fact that among presidents in the latter half of the 20th century, Reagan and Clinton issued more executive orders than any other presidents – and far more than Obama.
What I suspect many on the right have done is start with an ideologically satisfying premise – Obama is a radical, power-hungry, extremist dictator – and then work backwards in the hopes of bolstering the thesis.
But the endeavor clearly isn’t going well, largely because conservative activists and lawmakers don’t understand history as well as they think they do.
“Can you believe Obama is issuing executive orders?” Well, yes, every president has issued executive orders, and Obama has issued fewer than any in over a century.
“Can you believe Obama has relied on czars?” Well, sure, most recent presidents have had czars and no one considered it controversial until 2009.
“Can you believe Obama’s health care policy forces consumers to buy something?” Actually, the practice goes back to George Washington.
“Can you believe Obama has made recess appointments?” Yep, because every modern president has made recess appointments.
“Can you believe Obama has decided not to defend certain federal laws against court challenges?” Sure, but most modern presidents have done the same thing.
If Republicans had criticized any of these previous presidents for the same reasons, their complaints would be more persuasive now. But as it stands, it just seems as if Obama’s critics don’t know what they’re talking about.
Imagine if Obama did something really outrageous, like selling weapons to a sworn enemy of the United States in order to finance an illegal war in Central America. Now that would be worthy of screams about “tyranny,” “extra-constitutional abuses,” and “contempt for the norms of our democracy.”
But that’s not what Obama has done. It’s just routine governance, with ample precedent in the American tradition. Republicans don’t have to like it, but the facts are the facts. Their complaints suggest they don’t know or don’t care about the basics of American history.
Update: In an email to the Associated Press this morning, Meacham said he was at best “imprecise” and at worst “just plain wrong” with his on-air comments.