Barack Obama: Domestic Affairs
First-Term Transition and Appointments
Since 1933, when the 20th Amendment to the Constitution moved up the date of the president’s inauguration from March 4 to January 20, new presidents-elect have had about eleven weeks to make the transition from candidate to president. Several important tasks must be accomplished in this period if the transition is to be successful. None is politically more important than appointing the White House staff and the cabinet. None is personally more important than preparing the new president's family for life in the White House.
During the summer of 2008, Obama appointed John Podesta, the president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, and former chief of staff in the Clinton White House to begin preparing for the transition that would occur if Obama won the election. In October, President George W. Bush appointed a transition team to work cooperatively with whichever candidate was elected. As a result, Obama could get started as soon as the results were in on November 4. Just two days later, Obama announced that Representative Rahm Emanuel of Chicago would be his White House chief of staff.
The Obama transition team announced further high-ranking staff appointments in short order, with most of them going to friends and personal loyalists of the new president. As senior presidential advisers, Obama appointed David Axelrod, his chief campaign adviser, Pete Rouse, his Senate chief of staff, and Valerie Jarrett, his longtime Chicago friend and supporter. Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary during his Senate and presidential campaigns, was chosen as White House press secretary, and Chris Liu, Obama's legislative assistant in the Senate, became cabinet secretary.
Other important staff appointments went to: Jim Messina and Mona Sutphen (deputy chiefs of staff), Greg Craig (White House counsel), Ellen Moran (communications director), and Phil Schiliro (legislative liaison). Obama also named former Marine general James L. Jones as his national security adviser, former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers as director of the National Economic Council, and veteran congressional staffer Melody Barnes as his domestic policy adviser. Former Congressional Budget Office director Peter Orszag was appointed head of the Office of Management and Budget. Leon Panetta, a former member of Congress who had served in several administrations, was chosen as director of the Central Intelligence Agency director and retired Admiral Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence.
In appointing the core members of the cabinet—the heads of the fifteen executive departments—Obama relied in part on the “team-of-rivals” approach that presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin attributed to Abraham Lincoln in her 2005 book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Obama first appointed Hillary Rodham Clinton, his chief opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, as secretary of state. Obama also included two Republicans in the cabinet, inviting Bush's secretary of defense, Robert Gates, to remain in that position, and appointing Representative Ray LaHood of Illinois as secretary of transportation. Other cabinet appointments went to: Timothy Geithner (treasury), Eric Holder (attorney general), Janet Napolitano (homeland security), Hilda Solis (labor), Shaun Donovan (housing and urban development), Steven Chu (energy), Arne Duncan (education), Ken Salazar (interior), Tom Vilsack (agriculture), Eric Shinseki (veterans affairs) and Kathleen Sebelius (health and human services).
After the midterm elections in 2010, as President Obama recovered from what he labeled the “shellacking” the Democrats received, he instituted personnel changes in his administration. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, resigned in October 2010 to return to Chicago to run for mayor. In January 2011, Obama appointed William Daley to replace Emanuel. Daley, whose father and brother had both been mayor of Chicago, had worked on various Democratic campaigns, served in the Clinton administration, and been a banker on Wall Street. Obama's press secretary, Robert Gibbs, resigned in February 2011 and was replaced by Jay Carney, a journalist who had served as Vice President Biden's director of communications. Similarly, Obama's senior adviser, David Axlerod, was replaced by David Plouffe, who managed the Obama's 2008 presidential campaign.
Financial Troubles and Recovery
Like Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 and Ronald Reagan in 1981, Obama had to address a major economic crisis as soon as he was inaugurated on January 20, 2009. The nation’s leading banks and other financial institutions were in serious danger of collapse. The economy had stopped growing and was hemorrhaging jobs, with the unemployment rate nearing 10 percent. Housing prices were in freefall, leading to numerous foreclosures.
Even before taking the oath of office, Obama had endorsed President George W. Bush’s Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), a $700-billion initiative to rescue the nation’s major banks by lending enough money to keep them solvent. As president, Obama also directed $60 billion in TARP funds to General Motors and Chrysler and its suppliers (in addition to the $20 billion President George W. Bush had authorized for that purpose) in an effort to keep the American automobile industry from going bankrupt. TARP worked: The auto companies, which had to reform their corporate operations in return for funding, survived, as did all of the major banks. By the end of 2009, these institutions already had repaid the government more than $600 billion. Nevertheless, many voters perceived the program as a bailout for wealthy bankers and corporate executives.
Obama's first major new recommendation to Congress was for an $800-billion economic stimulus package: the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. About one-third of the money involved grants to state governments to keep them from laying off public employees or reducing unemployment compensation; about one-third was for middle-class tax cuts; and about a third went for bridges, highways, sewage treatment facilities, and other infrastructure projects. The latter category included tens of billions of dollars to spur research and development of renewable sources of energy, especially wind and solar. These sectors flourished in the years that followed and came to occupy a rapidly growing share of the nation’s overall energy usage. Although Obama hoped to pass the Recovery Act with bipartisan support, not a single Republican House member and only three Republican senators voted for it. Democratic control of Congress was strong enough to secure its passage, however, and President Obama signed the act into law on February 17, 2009.
By many measures, the president’s economic policies worked, leaving behind a strong economy when he left office in 2017. The policies averted a possible, even probable, free fall into another Great Depression. During the remainder of his tenure, a net 11.3 million new jobs were created, the unemployment rate fell from 10 percent to less than 5 percent, inflation and interest rates remained low, the major stock indexes more than doubled, and the annual federal budget deficit fell from more than $1.4 trillion to less than $600 billion. In 2015 wages, heretofore a lagging element of the economic recovery, began to grow faster than inflation—indeed, the income of middle-class (by 5 percent) and lower-end (by 8 percent) workers rose more sharply than in any year since the Census Bureau began tracking the numbers in 1967. Still, the annual economic growth rate did not exceed 2 percent at any time during Obama’s presidency and the trend toward growing income inequality between the wealthiest Americans and the rest of the population grew, fueling widespread political discontent among voters.
Health Care Reform
Obama wanted to do more as president than put out the economic fire he inherited on taking office. He also sought to enact a major reform of the nation’s health care system. Health care reform had been a leading Democratic Party goal since the presidency of Harry S. Truman. In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson had secured the enactment of Medicare for older Americans and Medicaid for the poor. The next two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, each failed to persuade Congress to pass legislation to guarantee health care coverage for everyone else. Although Obama had only promised during the election campaign to address this issue “by the end of my four-year term,” he decided that his best chance of success was during his first year in office, when his popularity was likely to be at its highest and the Democrats enjoyed strong majorities in both houses of Congress.
Obama faced major hurdles in achieving health care legislation. Although congressional Democrats were united in support of reform, they were divided about what form it should take. Some insisted that the federal government offer a “public-option” (that is, a government-run) coverage plan, and others urged that private coverage be extended to those who lacked it. More than three-fourths of Americans had private health insurance in some form, and despite the steeply rising costs of health care, many of them worried that changing the system might make their own situation worse, as well as adding to the federal budget deficit that the Recovery Act had already sent soaring above $1 trillion per year.
In the face of these obstacles, Obama resolved that any reform proposal would have to be budget-neutral—that is, save as much money as it spent. He accommodated the interests of the pharmaceutical and hospital industries, both of which had helped to sink President Clinton’s health care bill through massive advertising and extensive lobbying. Obama invited Congress to share in developing the legislation, in contrast to the secret process that Clinton had employed.
These efforts alone were not enough to secure passage, especially when members of Congress encountered angry opposition to “Obamacare” from the Tea Party movement in a series of August 2009 town-hall meetings in their home states and districts. The president, frustrated that he was not getting through to the American people, decided to speak to the nation in a prime-time address to Congress on September 9, 2009.
“The plan I’m announcing tonight would meet three basic goals,” Obama declared. “It will provide more security and stability to those who have health insurance. It will provide insurance to those who don’t. And it will slow the growth of health care costs for our families, our businesses, and our government.” Specifically, “individuals will be required to carry basic health insurance—just as most states require you to carry auto insurance. Likewise, businesses will be required to either offer their workers health care, or chip in to help cover the costs of their workers.” Obama’s argument was overshadowed to some degree when, in response to his declaration that the “claim . . . that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants . . . is false,” Republican representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted, “You lie!” from his seat in the House chamber.
But the speech succeeded in arresting the months-long decline in public and congressional support for reform. In this altered political environment, the president launched a successful campaign to persuade members of Congress in face-to-face meetings. By year’s end, both houses of Congress had passed different versions of health care reform legislation. On March 23, 2010, after some elaborate but procedurally necessary legislative wrangling to persuade the House to pass the Senate bill without modification, Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law. One week later he signed the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, which restored some of the House's preferred features.
Controversy over the Affordable Care Act (ACA) did not end when Congress enacted it. After Republicans won control of the House in the 2010 midterm elections, they began voting regularly to repeal it. When the party gained a majority of the Senate in 2014, that chamber joined the repeal effort. In January 2016, Obama vetoed the first repeal bill that Congress sent him, only his eighth veto as president and arguably the most consequential.
The ACA also mostly survived serious legal challenges. In the 2012 case of National Federation of Independent Business v. Sibelius, the Supreme Court ruled by a narrow 5-4 majority that the law’s requirement that everyone obtain health insurance was constitutional, but a seven-justice majority overturned the additional requirement that states expand their Medicaid coverage, thereby making expansion optional for each state.
Other court cases arose under the Affordable Care Act during Obama’s second term. In 2014, the Court ruled 5-4 in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby that closely-held private companies could choose on religious grounds not to obey a regulation issued by the Department of Health and Human Services requiring employers to provide contraceptive coverage for their employees under the act. In 2015, the Court ruled 6-3 in King v. Burwell that the federal government’s new power under the law to provide tax subsidies for poor and middle-class people to buy health insurance whether the state they lived in created its own purchasing exchange or not was constitutional.
The ACA’s greatest initial problem was neither political nor legal. The launch of the program in 2013 was seriously botched when the website through which people were to buy insurance proved inadequate to the task. For months, nearly every news story about Obamacare concerned problems with its website. The problems eventually were fixed but the damage to the program’s public reputation lingered. Even as the longstanding steep upward trend in the cost of health care slowed and the number of the nation’s uninsured dropped steadily through the end of Obama’s second term, reducing the share of uncovered adults from 18 percent to 11 percent, the American people remained deeply divided about the law.
In the 2016 election, both the victorious Republican nominee for president, Donald J. Trump, and the reelected Republican Congress pledged to “repeal and replace” Obamacare as soon as possible. They also promised to preserve certain popular elements of the program such as guaranteed coverage of pre-existing conditions and children’s eligibility to be covered by their parents’ health insurance until age twenty-six. Although the Republicans controlled both the presidency and Congress, they were unable to repeal and replace Obamacare during President Trump’s first year in office.
Other Domestic Policy Initiatives
President Obama’s other first-term domestic policy initiatives included the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act for women and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program, which created a competition among the states for $4.5 billion in extra funding tied to public school reforms authorizing more charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to student learning. Competing for this relatively small amount of money, political scientist William G. Howell reported in a 2015 study, spurred previously reform-averse states to adopt measures such as testing teacher effectiveness and allowing charter schools. Even states that did not receive grants pursued reform as part of the grant application process.
In 2010, Obama persuaded Congress to enact financial reform legislation, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, designed to prevent economic meltdowns like the one he inherited when he took office. Among other things, the act required “systematically important” financial institutions (those often described as “too big to fail”) to protect against major losses by maintaining higher levels of capital. The act also reduced banks’ ability to invest in risky securities and created a new federal agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to monitor the lending practices of banks, mortgage companies, and “payday” lenders, which make short-term, high-interest loans to a mostly low-income clientele.
The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm election brought an end to Obama’s period of dramatic legislative accomplishment. He lacked the majority needed to pass bills through the House, and the Democratic majority in the Senate was not large enough to overcome Republican filibusters, which require a three-fifths vote to be brought to a close. As a result of the 2014 midterm election, Obama faced a Republican majority in both congressional chambers during his final two years in office, bringing the legislative process almost to a standstill.
Facing the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives and an enlarged Republican minority in the Senate, President Obama spent much of 2011 and 2012 on the defensive. Most of 2011 was dominated by congressional Republicans’ efforts to legislate massive cuts in domestic spending in order to bring down the federal budget deficit. Democrats in Congress fiercely resisted these efforts, leaving the president caught in the middle. Obama shared the Republicans’ goal of long-term deficit reduction, but worried that immediate reductions in federal spending would stifle the still struggling economic recovery. He also thought that any deficit reduction plan should include tax increases on high-income individuals and households, a policy he had pursued since announcing his candidacy for president in 2007.
During the summer of 2011, Obama secretly negotiated with the new Speaker of the House, Republican Representative John Boehner of Ohio, to see if they could agree on a deficit reduction plan. In early August, the two leaders came close to an agreement that would impose $800 billion in tax increases and $3.2 trillion in spending reductions over a ten-year period. But when a small group of Republican and Democratic senators offered a deficit-reduction plan of their own that included $1.2 trillion of tax increases, Obama realized that he would lose the support of his party if he stuck with his and Boehner’s agreement on the smaller amount. President Obama told Boehner he needed $400 billion more in taxes before he could agree to their deal, and the Republican leader, aware that most members of his party’s caucus opposed any tax increases at all, broke off negotiations. Boehner’s ongoing struggle with the increasingly conservative House Republican caucus led to his retirement as Speaker in October 2015 and his replacement in that position by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who had been the Republican nominee for vice president in 2012.
In lieu of the aborted 2011 $4 trillion deficit reduction agreement, Congress and the president settled on a more modest plan in which Congress would create a “super committee” of House and Senate Republicans and Democrats, whose purpose was to identify $1.2 trillion in tax increases, spending cuts, or some combination of both by the end of 2012. If the committee failed to reach an agreement, then the plan stipulated that $1.2 trillion in spending cuts would automatically take effect, half in defense and half in domestic programs. The rationale was that the threat of “sequestration” would motivate Republicans who did not want to see the defense budget cut and Democrats who did not want certain domestic programs cut to pressure the super committee to reach an agreement. This did not happen. As political scientists David Lewis and Terry Moe have written, “the super committee failed miserably, and most of 2012 was then wasted as legislators looked toward the November elections and refused to bite the bullet on the deficit issue.” The first round of sequestrations took effect but proved so politically painful to legislators from both parties that their repetition in future years became doubtful.
Supreme Court and Other Judicial Appointments
Two vacancies occurred on the US Supreme Court during Obama’s first term. David Souter retired in 2009, and John Paul Stevens retired in 2010. Both were liberal justices, and Obama nominated two liberals to replace them: federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court nominee in history, to replace Souter and Solicitor General Elena Kagan to replace Stevens. Senate Republicans did not strenuously resist either nomination because replacing liberal justices with other liberals did not affect the Court's ideological balance. The Senate confirmed Sotomayor on August 6, 2009, by a vote of 68 to 31, and it confirmed Kagan on August 5, 2010, by a vote of 63 to 37.
On February 13, 2016, during Obama’s final year as president, Justice Antonin J. Scalia, a leader among the Court’s conservatives, unexpectedly died. About an hour after Scalia’s death was confirmed, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared that because Scalia’s seat had become vacant during an election year, the Senate would not even consider a nomination from President Obama. “This vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president,” McConnell declared, arguing that “the American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice.” Historically, the Senate had often denied confirmation to nominees appointed in a president’s final year in office, but it had never refused even to consider a nomination.
McConnell’s declaration did not deter Obama from nominating Merrick B. Garland, the Chief Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, on March 16. Garland’s judicial record revealed him to be more conservative than many Democrats preferred but more liberal than many conservatives found acceptable, especially since his addition to the Court would mean that a majority of justices had been chosen by Democratic Presidents.
Senate Republicans held firm in their resolve, gambling that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee for president in 2016, would not win the election and appoint a justice even more liberal than Garland. In an unprecedented move, Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump issued two lists totaling twenty-one names of his own potential Supreme Court nominees during the campaign. Garland’s nomination died, and Trump nominated someone from his second list, federal appellate court judge Neil M. Gorsuch, soon after taking office.
Nevertheless, Obama shifted the thirteen federal courts of appeal to a Democrat-appointed majority. Republican domination of the presidency for 28 of the 40 years from 1969 to 2009 had left the Courts of Appeals with a majority of Republican-appointed judges for nearly all of the two decades before Obama became president. In 2008, the final year of George W. Bush’s second term, 100 of 178 federal appellate judges were Republican appointees, compared with 66 Democratic appointees and 12 vacancies. As the end of Obama’s tenure approached in 2016, Democratic appointees outnumbered Republican appointees on the appellate courts by 94 to 76, with 10 vacancies. Obama had chosen 54 of these judges. Democratic appointees now outnumbered Republican appointees on 9 of the 13 federal courts of appeals as compared with just one when he first took office.
Facilitating the confirmation of Obama’s judicial nominees, which had slowed dramatically midway through his tenure, was a change in Senate rules that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, initiated in 2013. Previously, the rules required a three-fifths majority—60 of the 100 senators—to bring a nomination to the floor for a vote. Even when the Democrats controlled the Senate, Republicans nearly always had enough members to thwart these efforts. The rules of the Senate itself, however, could be changed by a simple majority of senators—51, not 60—and Reid pushed through a rules change that allowed a simple majority to approve all judicial and executive branch nominations except for Supreme Court justices, to whom the old three-fifths rule still applied. Not just Democratic presidents with a Democratic Senate would be able to take advantage of the new rule in the future, of course, as the new Republican president and Republican Senate found when they benefited from it starting in 2017.
The Start of the Second Term
As with most two-term administrations, numerous changes occurred in the cabinet and White House staff as Obama began his second term. Only Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack served all eight years of the Obama presidency. What made the Obama presidency different was that these changes almost always occurred in the normal course of things, not as the result of scandal or political controversy—a consequence of Obama’s famously “no drama” style of governing.
Of the four “inner cabinet” posts, the heads of all but the Justice Department (Attorney General Eric Holder) decided it was time to move on. In 2013, Obama chose Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, and Kerry served until the end of the president’s second term in 2017. Greater instability attended the position of secretary of defense. In 2011, Obama had appointed Leon Panetta, who had served in several administrations in high-ranking positions, to replace Robert Gates; during the second term, he appointed former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, to replace Panetta in 2013; and in 2015, he appointed Ashton Carter, who served out the remainder of Obama’s second term. In 2015, Holder stepped down as attorney general and was replaced by Loretta Lynch. Obama also named White House chief of staff Jack Lew to replace Timothy Geithner as secretary of the treasury.
In other cabinet positions, John Bryson became secretary of commerce in 2011, when Gary Locke stepped down, and Penny Pritzker replaced Bryson in 2015. As secretary of the interior, Sally Jewell replaced Ken Salazar in 2013, and as secretary of health and human services, Sylvia Mathews Burwell replaced Kathleen Sibelius in 2015. Thomas Perez took Hilda Solis’s place as secretary of labor in 2013. Housing and urban development secretary Shaun Donovan was replaced by Julian Castro in 2014; Anthony Foxx replaced secretary of transportation Ray LaHood in 2013; and Ernest Muniz replaced Steven Chu as secretary of energy in 2013. In the three most recently created departments, John B. King Jr. replaced Arne Duncan as secretary of education in 2016; Robert McDonald replaced Eric Shinseki as secretary of veterans affairs in 2014: and Jeh Johnson became secretary of homeland security when Janet Napolitano stepped down in 2013. None of these transitions involved scandal or, except for Hagel’s abbreviated tenure as secretary of defense, seemed untimely. Historically, long tenure as head of an executive department has been the exception, not the rule.
The same pattern applied to leading positions in the White House staff and the executive office of the president. Obama had four chiefs of staff, replacing Rahm Emanuel with William Daley and Daley with Jack Lew during his first term before settling on deputy national security adviser Dennis McDonough as chief of staff for the entire second term. The president also had four Office and Management and Budget directors:Peter Orszag (2009-2010), Jack Lew (2010-2012), Sylvia Burwell (2013-2014), and Shaun Donovan (2014-2017). Three individuals served as national security adviser: James Jones (2009-2010), Tom Donilon (2010-2013), and Susan Rice (2013-2017). As White House press secretary, perhaps the most public staff positions, Obama was served by Robert Gibbs (2009-2011), Jay Carney (2011-2014), and Josh Earnest (2014-2017).
On January 20, 2013, Obama delivered his second Inaugural Address. It was traditional in some ways and innovative in others. Like most such addresses, he struck unifying themes grounded in the American experience. He opened the speech, for example, by quoting the Declaration of Independence's statement that “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” But as the address unfolded, Obama became more specific than has been customary on such occasions. Among the issues he raised were climate change, same-sex marriage, and health care reform. The unifying theme of the address was that policies such as these would help to fulfill the ideals stated in the Declaration.
In his February 12, 2013, State of the Union address, Obama elaborated on the agenda that he offered at the inauguration, while also calling for greater federal support for early childhood education, immigration reform to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, an increase in the minimum wage, and new gun control legislation. The last of these issues had taken on special urgency after December 14, 2012, when a gunman shot and killed twenty school children and six teachers and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. As in the past, Republicans in Congress, along with some Democrats from generally rural pro-gun states, thwarted passage of any gun control legislation. Congressional resistance to new gun control laws persisted after several subsequent mass shootings, including the slaying of nine worshippers at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015.
Obama also called on Congress to avoid the $85 billion of across-the-board cuts in the federal budget—half in defense and half in domestic programs—that were scheduled to take place automatically on March 1, 2013, if legislators could not agree on another plan for achieving deficit reduction. The scheduled automatic cuts were a consequence of the decision Congress made in August 2011 to achieve $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over a ten-year period through “sequestration” if no other method could be agreed on. Obama wanted Congress to forestall the scheduled sequester by raising taxes and making targeted cuts in spending. Sequestration nevertheless took effect on March 1 as scheduled. In October 2013, the government shut down for two weeks when Congress and the president were unable to agree on a budget. Later that year, they reached a compromise agreement that suspended sequestration for the foreseeable future. The combination of revived economic growth and budgetary austerity brought the annual federal budget deficit down from $1.4 trillion in 2009 to $0.4 trillion in 2015 before ticking upward to $0.6 trillion the following year.
Congressional Republicans were loath to pass nearly all of the legislation the president wanted. A possible exception, it seemed for a time, might be immigration reform, which many Republicans were open to in 2013—not because of Obama, but because the GOP’s dismal performance in the 2012 election among Latino voters made many party leaders want to repair their image as an anti-immigrant party. In 2013, a bipartisan majority of the Senate passed the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act—an immigration reform bill creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants—by a vote of 68 to 32. The bill died when Republican conservatives in the House, responding to growing grassroots anti-immigration pressure from their constituents, refused to bring it to the floor. Obama turned to executive action in an effort to achieve some of the immigrations reforms he had not been able to obtain through the legislative process.
Concerning immigration and several other matters, congressional Republican resistance to Obama’s legislative agenda led him to rely increasingly on executive orders, proclamations, regulations, and other unilateral executive actions during his second term. “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” he said in 2014 as a way of characterizing his powers that did not depend on congressional cooperation. In the area of domestic policy, Obama’s executive actions included:
- Issuing the Climate Action Plan, which resulted in the Environmental Protection Agency ordering such severe reductions in carbon emissions from power plants as to reduce the nation’s coal plant capacity by nearly one-third.
- Vetoing a bill to authorize construction of the 1000-mile-long Keystone XL Pipeline that would have connected Canada’s oil sands to the Gulf of Mexico.
- Issuing an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contract employees to $10.10 per hour.
- Requiring background checks for purchasers of guns at gun shows.
- Issuing an executive order banning discrimination by federal contractors on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. In 2014, Obama publicly celebrated the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges decision granting marriage rights to same sex couples. He called to congratulate the plaintiffs and had the exterior of the White House lit with rainbow colors.
- Creating MyRa’s to help Americans without pensions to save for retirement.
- Cracking down on for-profit colleges whose former students have high levels of student loan debt and low incomes.
Some of Obama’s executive actions were undone by his successor and others by federal court decisions ruling he had exceeded his legal authority. For example, in February 2015, a federal district judge stayed the president’s 2014 DAPA policy (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans), which would have allowed undocumented immigrants whose children were American citizens to stay in the United States, in the case of Texas v. United States. In June 2016, the Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 in an appeal of the ruling, which left it in place. An earlier Obama initiative—DACA, or Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals—remained in effect, however, allowing certain classes of minors who arrived in the United States illegally to stay in the country.
Obama used the veto power sparingly but effectively. He vetoed twelve bills passed by Congress during his eight years as president, including bills to overturn the Affordable Care Act and to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Congress overrode only one of his vetoes, a 2016 measure to allow victims of terrorist acts to sue countries that supported the acts. Equally important, veto threats by the president kept Congress from passing other measures of which he disapproved, or at least modifying them in ways that made them acceptable for him to sign.
The president’s constitutional power to issue pardons was used with much greater frequency by Obama, especially during his final two years in office when his attention turned to criminal justice reform. He issued 212 pardons and commuted 1,715 sentences, more than the previous thirteen presidents combined. Most of these acts of clemency were on behalf of individuals who had been sentenced to very long sentences for committing federal drug crimes.