The (Almost) Case for Unilateral Action
In September 1940, just in front of the election that would make Franklin Roosevelt the first and only third-term president, FDR engineered an audacious deal with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
In exchange for gifting 50 aging, World War I vintage U.S. destroyers to the besieged British, Churchill granted the American president 99 year leases on a number of military bases in the Western Hemisphere. The destroyers for bases deal was loudly condemned by FDR’s critics who called it a raw presidential power play. As critics correctly pointed out, Roosevelt acted on his own motion, going behind the back of Congress to cut his deal with Churchill. History has for the most part vindicated FDR’s power play and many historians think the U.S. actually got the better of the deal.
The 1940 action by Roosevelt may be one of the greatest examples of a president acting unilaterally, but our history is replete with similar examples of presidential action on a unilateral basis. One of Theodore Roosevelt’s gutsy unilateral moves as he was nearing the end of his term created millions of acres of forest preserves – today’s National Forests – and protected the Grand Canyon. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was an act of presidential leadership that is almost universally praised today, but at the time the Great Emancipator cut Congress out of the loop and acted alone.
Now come criticism of Barack Obama’s unilateral action to order the end of deportations for certain young people who might otherwise be sent packing for being in the country illegally even as they have gone on to get an education, or work in order to become contributing members of our society. Critics charge the president acted for the most transparent political reasons or that he acted unconstitutionally or that he has now made legislative action on immigration more difficult. That last charge seems a particularly hard sell given the inability of Congress to act at all regarding immigration, but the real beef with Obama is that he acted alone.
Jimmy Carter used presidential action to protect the environmental crown jewels of Alaska, an action that ultimately forced Congress to get off the dime on that issue. Harry Truman informed Congress, but did not seek its approval regarding his 1948 decision to desegregate the U.S. military.
Of course all presidents overreach, but most do so by acting unilaterally in the foreign policy field, and that a place were unilateral action is often decidedly more problematic, at least in my view. It may turn out that Obama’s immigration action will be successfully challenged in a court of law or the court of public opinion, but don’t bet on it. I’m struck by how often in our history when a president has taken a big, bold step on an issue were Congress can’t or won’t act that the bold step has been vindicated by history.
The American people have always tended to reward action over inaction. Ronald Reagan’s unilateral decision to fire striking air traffic controllers near the beginning of his presidency in 1981 is a good example. Now celebrated, by conservatives at least, as a sterling example of a president acting decisively in the public interest, the decision was enormously contentious at the time it was made. Now its mostly seen as an effective use of unilateral action by a strong president.
The early polling seems to show that Obama’s recent “dream act-like” action on immigration is widely accepted by the American public. The lesson for the current occupant of the Oval Office, a politician who has displayed little skill in getting Congress to act on many issues, might be that a little unilateral action on important issues is not only good politics, but good government.
George W. Bush got this much right about the power of the presidency: the Chief Executive can be, when he wants to be, the decider on many things. The great Churchill frequently demanded “action this day” in his memos to subordinates. The great wartime leader knew that power not used isn’t worth much; but action properly applied is indeed real power.