In January 2014, then-President Barack Obama hosted a cabinet meeting, where he expressed optimism about working with lawmakers from both parties to advance the nation's interests. He also seemed realistic. however, about whether Congress would get anything done.
"One of the things that I'll be emphasizing in this meeting is the fact that we are not just going to be waiting for a legislation in order to make sure that we're providing Americans the kind of help that they need. I've got a pen and I've got a phone," Obama said. The pen referred to executive actions, including executive orders, and the phone referred to Obama's willingness to reach out to people beyond the Beltway -- "non-profits, businesses, the private sector, universities" -- to help work on his priorities.
Almost immediately, Republicans were outraged, suggesting Obama's "pen and phone" rhetoric was proof that the Democratic president intended to ignore our system of government and make major policy changes without congressional input. The "pen and phone" framing quickly became a GOP shorthand for the party's impression that Obama saw himself as a dictator.
And yet, there was Donald Trump last week, arguing that in response to the Republican Congress' ineptitude, "I will be using the power of the pen" to tackle health care policy unilaterally -- which is awfully similar to the kinds of actions GOP lawmakers condemned when Obama was in the Oval Office.
The New York Times had a piece on this over the weekend:
The president was frustrated. Lawmakers were not passing what he wanted. They were "obstructionists," he complained. So he took out his pen, signed his name to an order and took action on his own. "We're taking a little different route than we had hoped because getting Congress -- they forgot what their pledges were," he said.
The chief executive attacking Congress was President Trump, but his words might have been spoken by President Barack Obama. Mr. Trump has concluded that he cannot wait for a polarized Congress to act, so he is turning to executive power to accomplish what lawmakers will not, in this case erasing the legacy of the Obama years.
As is always the case, the substantive details matter, and there's no denying the fact that Obama was far more ambitious when it came to using executive power, at least given what we've seen from Trump thus far.
But at the same time, Obama didn't run on a platform predicated on avoiding executive orders -- and Trump did.