WASHINGTON — This is what “Forward” looks like. Fast forward, even.
President Barack Obama’s campaign slogan is springing to life in a surge of executive directives and agency rule-making that touch many of the affairs of government. They are shaping the cost and quality of health plans, the contents of the school cafeteria, the front lines of future combat, the price of coal. They are the leading edge of Obama’s ambition to take on climate change in ways that may be unachievable in legislation.
Altogether, it’s a kinetic switch from what could have been the watchword of the Obama administration in the closing, politically hypersensitive months of his first term: pause.
Whatever the merits of any particular commandment from the president or his agencies, the perception of a government expanding its reach and hitting business with job-killing mandates was sure to set off fireworks before November.
Since Obama’s re-election, regulations giving force and detail to his health care law have gushed out by the hundreds of pages. To some extent this was inevitable: The law is far-reaching and its most consequential deadlines are fast approaching.
The rules are much more than fine print, however, and they would have thickened the storm over the health care overhaul if placed on the radar in last year’s presidential campaign. That, after all, was the season when some Republicans put the over-the-top label “death panel” on a board that could force cuts to service providers if Medicare spending ballooned.
The new health law rules provide leeway for insurers to charge smokers thousands of dollars more for coverage. They impose a $63 per-head fee on insurance plans — a charge that probably will be passed on to policyholders — to cushion the cost of covering people with medical problems. There’s a new fee for insurance companies for participating in markets that start signing customers in the fall.
In short, sticker shock.
It’s clear from the varied inventory of previously bottled-up directives that Obama cares about more than “Obamacare.”
“I’m hearing we’re going to see a lot of things moving now,” Hilda Solis told employees in her last day as labor secretary. At the Labor Department, this could include regulations requiring that the nation’s 1.8 million in-home care workers receive minimum-wage and overtime pay.
Tougher limits on soot from smokestacks, diesel trucks and other sources were announced just over a month after the Nov. 6 election. These were foreseen: The administration had tried to stall until the campaign ended but released the proposed rules in June when a judge ordered more haste.
Regulations give teeth and specificity to laws are essential to their functioning even as they create bureaucratic bloat. Congress-skirting executive orders and similar presidential directives are less numerous and generally have less reach than laws. But every president uses them and often tests how far they can go, especially in times of war and other crises.
President Harry Truman signed an executive order in 1952 directing the Commerce Department to take over the steel industry to ensure U.S. troops fighting in Korea were kept supplied with weapons and ammunition. The Supreme Court struck it down.
Other significant actions have stood.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an order in February 1942 to relocate more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast to internment camps after Japan’s attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base. Decades later, Congress passed legislation apologizing and providing $20,000 to each person who was interned.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President George W. Bush approved a series of executive orders that created an office of homeland security, froze the assets in U.S. banks linked to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, and authorized the military services to call reserve forces to active duty for as long as two years.
Bush’s most contentious move came in the form of a military order approving the use of the military tribunals to put accused terrorists on trial faster and in greater secrecy than a regular criminal court.
Obama also has wielded considerable power in secret, upsetting the more liberal wing of his own party. He has carried forward Bush’s key anti-terrorism policies and expanded the use of unmanned drone strikes against terrorist targets in Pakistan and Yemen.
When a promised immigration overhaul failed in legislation, Obama went part way there simply by ordering that immigrants brought illegally to the United States as children be exempted from deportation and granted work permits if they apply. So, too, the ban on gays serving openly in the military was repealed before the election, followed now by the order lifting the ban on women serving in combat.
Those measures did not prove especially contentious. Indeed, the step on immigration is thought to have helped Obama in the election. It may be a different story as the administration moves more forcefully across a range of policy fronts that sat quiet in much of his first term.
William Howell, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and the author of “Power Without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action,” isn’t surprised to see commandments coming at a rapid clip.
“In an era of polarized parties and a fragmented Congress, the opportunities to legislate are few and far between,” Howell said. “So presidents have powerful incentive to go it alone.”