Presidential Powers, Ltd: Gridlock and the Source of Social Change

Each Wednesday, the Editorial features analysis of a news story from the week.

At dinner a day or so after the State of the Union address last week, my youngest brother and my father were analyzing and debating the meaning of the speech. Was it about women’s equality? Was it about the end of the war in Afghanistan? Was it, in the end, a speech about the state of the economy?

Interestingly, the conclusion of the conversation was that the president showed a lot of the limitations of his office. With Congress and the White House in an apparent unchanging gridlock, the president’s best hope for his final years in office is to issue numerous executive orders, moving his agenda forward, if at a fraction of what it would be if he had the legislative branch aiding him.

Indeed, as the Economist observed, “for anybody listening from abroad, his most startling promise to America’s legislature was to bypass it. ‘Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do,’ he vowed. This year, he said, will be “a year of action.”

In the speech, Obama promised to "slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects, so we can get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible." And, as CNN reported, “the president also promised an executive order to raise the minimum wage for some government contract workers. While the action is relatively narrow and affects less than half a million people, Obama urged Congress to follow suit for all low-wage workers in America.”

The ability of the president to affect change according to his campaign promises are, we realize after listening to the SOTU, significantly limited by the kind of Congress he works with. In a Congress divided, or one dominated by the opposing party, a president is often frustrated in his legislative agenda. We saw, my father remarked, a president frustrated by the separation of power.

The Economist went on to wryly observe in its report of the speech, “After years of gridlock, Americans have got used to the idea that the gerrymandering of the electoral system and the polarisation of their two political parties have set the branches of government against each other, and that the checks and balances originally intended to keep the country’s polity healthy have condemned it to sclerosis.”

President Obama delivers the 2014 State of the Union address. Photo via     

President Obama delivers the 2014 State of the Union address. Photo via 


I admit, I wonder about the severe diagnosis the writers at the Economist renders our system. Are we, in fact, crippled by the gridlock? Have we passed the point of the checks and balances as originally intended? I would venture, actually, no.

While the government shutdown still makes many of us shudder, and for good reason, and while we are right to insist more cooperative efforts between legislative and executive, there is something about the reality that conflict between the branches does not necessarily mean inaction. When President Obama promises, “This is a year of action,” he implies that the previous years have been ones of inaction. But surely, the debate between competing sides, the conflict that produces piece after piece of dead legislation, is not nothing?

Isn’t it, in fact, something of the system we were given? A bicameral legislature, with different electoral cycles and different responsibilities for originating legislation, seems only more likely to limit the amount of legislation actually passed. The possibility of a presidential veto, the president’s need for Congress to pass laws in order for him or her to execute them, seems, again, to limit how much “action” we might have ever expected.

And perhaps this is, in fact, not so very terrible. We are accustomed to thinking of government as the chief initiator and bringer of social change, but perhaps a gridlocked Congress and a president forced to act within the very limited bounds of his exclusive executive powers can serve as a reminder that not all social change should be government driven. The structure we inherited from the framers of our Constitution, though frustrating at times, also forces us to consider anew the other places in our social fabric where change can begin. After all, if we adhere to a notion of sphere sovereignty, then most social change, most innovation, comes from the spheres around government, not government itself.

The classroom, the marketplace, the voluntary association, can be places of social innovation and change. While some cooperation with the government is necessary, the government itself cannot be the only one with the creative ideas about how to make more jobs or better educate our students in STEM fields. Advocates of less government regulation in the marketplace, for example, often point to the marketplace as a place of innovation: a place where we get ideas from Apple computers to better solar panels.  School reformers suggest that the best teaching and learning methods come from freeing teachers from standardized tests to innovate in their classrooms. The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was started (albeit by executive order) in part as an acknowledgement of how well suited faith-based organizations and community organizations were to meet the needs of their particular neighbors. And these are just a few examples of the many ways that our lives as citizens are colored by more than the services our government provides.

It is worth considering, at least, that the State of the Union and the bleak outlook in 2014 for the president’s policy agenda should not cause us too much grief. Perhaps, instead, it can motivate us to reconsider where we seek social change.

-Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at and tweets at @hilarysherratt