Lots of people make New Years Day resolutions they don't keep, despite their best intentions. President Barack Obama, however, has apparently made a resolution he does intend to follow through on: exercising his executive power. But Monday's announcement that he would expand gun control and take other unilateral action is actually a cautionary tale of incurable weakness, not a show of strength.
The president intends to roll out an expansion of federal rulemaking beginning as soon as next week, and has plans to add nearly 4,000 regulations through executive power alone, Politico's Timothy Noah reported on Monday. The cost of the regulations could go as high as $100 million or perhaps into the billions, depending on the interpretation given these new marching orders for federal agencies. One change — a potential declaration by the Food and Drug Administration of jurisdiction over the exploding e-cigarette market — alone could cost as much as $810 million over the next 20 years. The change "might well put e-cigarettes out of business," Noah writes, which clearly seems to be the intent, given the Obama administration's focus on teenage use of the product. Another rule governing the advice from brokers on retirement investors might cost the industry as much as $5.7 billion over the next decade.
But by far the most politically significant of these changes comes as part of Barack Obama's desire to advance gun control before he leaves office. Obama and the White House have talked up gun control options such as using the no-fly list to block gun sales, and even mentioned Australia's policy of massive firearm confiscation after a mass shooting incident in October. "We know that other countries, in response to one mass shooting, have been able to craft laws that almost eliminate mass shootings," Obama told the White House press corps after the mass murder at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon. "Friends of ours, allies of ours — Great Britain, Australia, countries like ours." It's not the first time Obama has mentioned this option, either. In June 2014, the president made the same argument, only in that instance acknowledged the "very severe" nature of the gun laws passed by the Australian government. The White House made it clear that they saw this fight as a defining struggle for Obama's legacy and that the actions would have a dramatic impact on gun violence. Gun-rights advocates girded themselves for a battle over executive power and constitutional rights.
The first indications of the actions in question make it appear that both sides are in for an anti-climax. Noah and CBS News' Rebecca Kaplan both report that Obama's executive orders will mainly be limited to expanding the definition of what constitutes a firearm dealer. This change would have impacted none of the shooting incidents cited by the administration, nor would another proposal to require better reporting of firearms stolen en route to a buyer. They add red tape without addressing the issues repeatedly raised by Obama himself.
After the build-up over the holidays, the biggest risk Obama runs is wildly overpromising and underdelivering. That is not limited to just the gun-control items on Obama's 2016 resolution list, either. It applies to his whole executive-power strategy.
At the heart of the problem is Obama's refusal to acknowledge the verdict of voters in two midterm landslide losses. When Obama took office seven years ago, his Democratic Party controlled both chambers of Congress and a fair number of state legislatures. Obama now has a Congress controlled by the GOP and a record number of state legislatures in Republican control. The country, while giving Obama a second term, made it clear that they want the GOP to curb his agenda. When Bill Clinton found himself in a similar position, he famously "triangulated" on key issues to pre-empt Republican efforts. He found ways to work with his opposition on issues that mattered to both — welfare reform comes immediately to mind — and effectively outboxed them on budgetary issues while still getting important agenda items accomplished through the normal political process.
Obama, on the other hand, has become even more determined to take his political ball and stomp off to the White House alone. That necessarily limits his range of action, while giving Obama an excuse for failure. "It is my strong belief that for us to get our complete arms around the problem Congress needs to act," Obama insisted on Monday. But that goal requires a president who understands how to work with Congress. Pushing rhetoric about Australia's solution and then demanding that Republicans budge on gun regulation is a symptom of weakness and failure, not power and accomplishment.
If Obama wants to build a lasting and positive impact in his final year in office, he'll need to climb down from his high horse and work with the Congress that people elected in 2014. Legacies are built on legislation, which gives permanence and legitimacy. Temper tantrums have almost no impact at all in the long run. That will become even more obvious in 2017 if a Republican succeeds Obama as president. As easily as Obama changed regulatory definitions and processes, a GOP president can erase his work and eliminate Obama's legacy — and almost certainly will do so.