Obama and the limits of unilateral action

But there are limits. Because executive orders are intended first and foremost to direct the conduct of the executive branch, they must be sensitive to diverse opinions and interests within the executive branch. Typically, the interagency consultation needed to produce executive orders is neither quick nor simple.

Nor are these orders self-executing. The more of them there are, and the more controversial they are within the executive branch, the less likely it is that they will be enforced. Shortly after leaving office, Bill Clinton told an interviewer, “One of the things that I was frustrated about when I was president was that . . . I’d issue all these executive orders, and then you can never be 100% sure that they were implemented.” The Obama White House, which has not always given implementation the attention it needs, will have to raise its game.

Compared with legislating in our system of separated powers, issuing executive orders always looks easier and faster. But inadequate checks and balances can lead to ill-considered actions based on erroneous information, especially when national security seems to be at stake. FDR’s post-Pearl Harbor internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans remains a blot on our nation’s honor. In the wake of 9/11, executive-branch decisions concerning intelligence collection and interrogations techniques have proved controversial and damaging.

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