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Presidential Historian: Obama's Just The Latest President To Rely On Executive Orders

Christopher Connelly/KERA
Douglas Brinkley

President Obama’s time in the White House, at this point, is measured in months, but according to presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, Obama is using every tool in the executive toolbox to being seen as a lame duck.

The Rice University professor, who spoke to the World Affairs Council of Dallas-Fort Worth on Monday, said that between Republican majorities in the House and the Senate, Obama has no option but to use executive authority to cement his legacy

Obama used executive orders to move a range of issues he’d been unable to gain traction on in Congress, like protecting some undocumented immigrants from deportation, re-establishing ties with Cuba, and expanding background checks for gun buyers.

“Obama’s last few years, the only way to not be a lame duck is to keep moving – go to Cuba, go to Argentina, in movement you have a chance – and sign executive orders where you let the courts challenge them later, show that you’re not a lame duck,” Brinkley said.

While that strategy has drawn the ire of many Republicans, Brinkley says Obama is far from the first president to use executive orders to promote his agenda. If you want to blame someone for dramatically expanding the power of the presidency, just blame either Roosevelt who held that office.

“The reach of both Roosevelts on executive power is astounding,” Brinkley said.

Brinkley has written books on both Presidents Roosevelt. Just after the turn of the last century, Teddy authored more than a thousand executive orders that, among other things, dramatically expanded federal park land. FDR issued more than 3700 orders, one of which resulted in the internment of more than a 120,000 Japanese-Americans (and some German- and Italian-Americans). Many of his orders were intended to fundamentally re-shape the American economy.

"FDR had a blank checkbook because with the depression everyone said do something," Brinkley said.

The presidential historian also weighed in on today’s presidential race. He says politicians have always tried to master the medium of the day, but Brinkley marveled at the change between the way campaigns were fought just over a hundred years ago and now.

“In 1896,” he said, “William McKinley just said I’m going to sit on my porch in Canton, Ohio and people can come to me. … And he wins!”

Brinkley says there’s no time to sit around in today’s breakneck media cycle.

“[They’ve] got to zig zag, cross three states, fifteen rallies, and everywhere they go there’s people waiting with cell phone cameras and people looking to say something wrong or trip up,” Brinkley said.

Brinkley called this election a watershed moment, no matter who wins. Already, he says, Republican front-runner Donald Trump is reshaping the GOP. Still, he thinks this election will end up as another battle for the usual swing states like Ohio and Florida and Colorado. And either way, he says we shouldn’t expect any less gridlock in Washington. 

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.