Columns, Opinions

Shemano ’19: The perils of executive overreach

op-ed contributor
Thursday, February 2, 2017

In the wake of President Donald Trump’s recent executive actions, it’s time to talk about the system and precedent that affords him the power to circumvent Congress and create policy unilaterally. You may be surprised to hear that when the legality of Trump’s executive orders goes to court, the Trump administration will not only cite U.S. code, but also cite former President Barack Obama’s policy and precedent.

The least talked about and arguably most important aspect of Obama’s legacy was his immense expansion of executive power. Undoubtedly, Obama has handed his successor a presidency even more powerful and dangerous than the one he inherited from former President George W. Bush.

I understand the inevitable criticism of this point: Blame over historical records is not as immediately important as surviving the crisis at hand and instituting reforms as soon as possible. But in order to survive this crisis and institute necessary reforms, we must understand the system in place that has provided the current president power that no president has ever held before. My purpose is not to make a pointed critique of Obama, but rather to start a conversation on the system that gave Trump the reach he has today. Unless we confront the system, rather than just our political opponents, nothing will change.

In 2010, few were outspoken about the potential consequences of the expansion in executive power. In fact, many might have even invited it as a progressive and useful tool. Faced with unfair gridlock for years, Obama embraced executive orders as a means of creating law. For example, he expanded regulations in order to protect the environment and attempted to pass executive amnesty to protect millions of undocumented immigrants. To many of us, these policies represent positive change — a far cry from the executive actions we have seen emerge from the White House in the last 10 days.

Many of us at Brown are supporters of Obama and considered him as honorable a president as we’ve ever had. I agree that Obama is an extremely intelligent, genuinely good person with a heart in the right place. But, just like all presidents before him, Obama was never going to stay in the White House forever. The danger with allowing the unchecked expansion of executive power is that somewhere down the line, someone with authoritative inclinations and an unclear moral code could take control.

For example, Obama’s executive unilateralism could very well end up providing the platform for Trump’s plan for mass deportations. The Trump administration will have access to the identities and information of all Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals participants who were required to submit their personal information to benefit from the program. This could be used by the administration to more efficiently execute a mass deportation. DACA, a well-intentioned executive order, could now be used to facilitate a humanitarian disaster — a truly terrifying prospect.

This reflects the fundamental shortsightedness of the political establishment. The Democrats in power assumed that, after Obama, another leader who shared his philosophy would be elected to lead. With this mindset, they oversaw the immense expansion of presidential power. They expanded the surveillance state, allowed the president to go to war without congressional authorization and enacted secret deep state “terror lists” (which not only authorize indiscriminate surveillance of people under certain “categories,” but also do so without due process). Trump will also be in charge of the massively expanded drone program — a lethal, targeted killing system. The list goes on and on.

It is true that Obama has signed fewer executive orders than many past presidents. Yet it is not the quantity, but the specifics of Obama’s executive orders that have set the stage for Trump’s current scope of power. Instead of signing executive orders to enact symbolic and administrative measures (their intended use), Obama used the executive order as a means of expanding executive power, overriding a Republican-majority Congress and creating policy. It is unquestionable that the size and scope of presidential power increased dramatically under Obama.

Trump’s election is now a wake up call to all those who supported Obama’s use of executive powers. For the next four years, Trump will enjoy a presidency far more powerful than it was ever intended to be. So long as the Republicans hold congressional majorities, it will be difficult to stop him.

But this doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the past. We should be vigilant in exposing the institutions and systems of government that gave him these powers. This means scrutinizing and voting out of office the establishment politicians from both parties who encouraged the expansion of executive power. It means lobbying for the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups who have consistently denounced the growth of executive power. Most importantly, it means holding a future president accountable if they attempt to increase executive power, even if we agree with the policies they create under that power.

Daniel Shemano ’19 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and other op-eds to

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  1. Man with Axe says:

    I don’t understand your criticism of Obama. His executive orders were all constitutional, based as they were on three important provisions: 1) the “When Congress won’t act, I will” provision, 2) The “we can’t wait” provision, and 2) the “phone and pen” provision.

    Trump should not have these same powers because he will use them for purposes of which the left disapproves.

    One more serious point: You wrote about “unfair gridlock.” What was unfair about it? On any issue, from the stimulus to Obamacare to immigration to the federal budget, did Obama ever try to meet the Republicans halfway, or even part of the way?

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