Obama's Action on Guns Is a Sign of Weakness

Acting unilaterally was his only option. It comes at a cost.

Divided we fall.

Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

No sooner did Barack Obama roll out a new set of executive actions on guns on Tuesday than we had some useful and thoughtful explanations of the changes he will carry out.

But political scientist Matthew Dickinson protests that resorting to executive action, rather than legislation, is a sign of the weakness of the presidency. I’ll summarize that argument:

  • In most cases, presidents don’t have the authority to do by themselves what laws can do. That’s why, as Greg Sargent of the Washington Post points out, Obama’s effort is rather modest compared with what he wanted from Congress.
  • Executive actions are less permanent than laws. Dickinson reports that only half of the most important executive orders from 1947 through 2003 remain intact. Future presidents can reverse them (as all the Republican candidates are pledging to do in this case); Congress can override them. It may not even need a veto-proof majority. Congress always has the option of packaging a repeal of an executive action with something the president wants to sign, and that might be enough to get the job done.
  • Members of Congress from both parties tend (all else being equal) to resent presidents who try to go it alone. Taking action without congressional support may not only make opponents on this policy more stubborn. The hostility can also spill over to other issues as well. And not just in Congress: If a president gains a reputation for running roughshod over the constitutional prerogatives of others, it can make everyone in the system more resistant to anything he does. 

All that said, however, using executive action is neither rare nor usually controversial. 1  While Dickinson is right about the costs of acting alone (see also Richard Neustadt), inaction has costs too. Many Democrats in Congress have wanted action on guns, climate, immigration and other issues, and they would have been upset if the president didn’t act. 

Republicans, meanwhile, have reduced the drawbacks of executive action by ruling out normal legislative dealmaking so often. The more Republicans refuse to consider compromise, or punish their leadership when it does, the less incentive Obama has to be cautious about acting unilaterally.

So, yes, while executive action is a sign of presidential weakness and a cause of further weakness, it’s still in many cases Obama’s least bad choice.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. Of course, the specific policy is often controversial, but before Obama the idea that presidents had the option of taking executive action in some cases was rarely challenged. 

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at

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