Democrats are just better at this stuff: Obama used executive power for progressive ends — and Hillary Clinton will follow his lead

One overlooked aspect of this crazy campaign: How the president uses his (or her!) executive powers and for what

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 4, 2016 9:00AM (EDT)

U.S. President Barack Obama is joined by Democratic Nominee for President Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 27, 2016.  REUTERS/Scott Audette - RTSK0B6 (Reuters)
U.S. President Barack Obama is joined by Democratic Nominee for President Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 27, 2016. REUTERS/Scott Audette - RTSK0B6 (Reuters)

Even though the 2016 presidential election has become an all-consuming beast, eating up the nation's time and attention, almost no attention has been paid to what the president actually does. A study released last week by the Tyndall Report shows that the flagship news programs of the big three networks devoted three times as many minutes to covering Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's emails — the same ones that have produced zero evidence of any illegal behavior — as they did covering real issues in the presidential campaign.

The larger media landscape, which takes in the televised debates, has delved a bit more into the nuts and bolts of presidenting and on occasion has dipped into substantive topics like picking judicial nominees, crafting a legislative agenda and conducting foreign policy. Even then, there has been little discussion about the executive duties of the executive office: building and maintaining the various federal bureaucracies that make our government work.

Only the FBI has really gotten extensive coverage this election cycle, and that's only because the FBI's director, James Comey, keeps making an unnecessary fuss over a bunch of Clinton emails that have yet to amount to anything.

That's a shame because it's in the execution of these executive duties that the president's true power and influence can be seen. It's not sexy, but the choices that the White House makes in staffing and directing various agencies can have deep effects on everything from health care access to reducing income inequality and making the justice system work better for everyone.

"Government is a game for wonks," Ian Millhiser, the justice editor for Think Progress, told me via email. "It not only requires deep policy knowledge," he wrote, adding that "it requires a creative understanding of where the levers of power are and how to work them to solve problems that aren't often easily fixed."

Even though Republicans control Congress and have prevented President Barack Obama from passing progressive legislation (or any other kind), he has been able to wield this executive power in a thousand little ways that don't make many headlines but do change people's lives for the better. There is every reason to believe that if Clinton is elected, that trend will continue.

If Republican nominee Donald Trump is elected, on the other hand, he will likely fill the federal bureaucracies with Republicans who, at best, distrust effective government for ideological reasons. At worst, he'll fill many of these positions with unqualified cronies and yes-men, as he has done for his campaign. On top of that, as Bryce Covert, the economic policy editor at Think Progress, pointed out to me over email, Trump has also promised to reverse every policy that Obama has put into place as president.

What that would look like is terrifying because Obama got a lot done in eight years in the Oval Office, despite Republican obstructionism. What follows is a series of highlights to illustrate this legacy. It's a legacy that Clinton is committed to preserving and expanding — and that Trump has vowed to destroy.

Holding Wells Fargo and other banks accountable for exploiting customers. The Obama administration has been tasked with executing the Dodd-Frank Act to rein in banking excesses, and a huge part of that has been running the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The bureau famously fined Wells Fargo $100 million this year for shady banking practices. But Trump has promised to do everything in his power to destroy the Dodd-Frank Act and the CFPB.

Fighting climate change. When I asked Scott Lemieux, a political science professor who blogs for Lawyers, Guns and Money, what Obama administration action he'd highlight, he replied, "There are a lot of candidates, but given the urgency of the problem I'd say the Clean Power Plan."

Last year the Environmental Protection Agency and the Obama administration developed the Clean Power Plan to set emission standards for our nation's power plants, which the Supreme Court stayed, in a party-line vote, in February. It's not an exaggeration, therefore, to note that one of the main reasons — perhaps the main reason — that Senate Republicans refuse to even consider Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, is because they know his appointment to the court will tip the scales and allow these regulations to go into effect. (All of Republican nominee Mike Pence's yapping about the glories of coal during the vice presidential debate was a thinly coded appeal to opponents of these regulations.)

Trump is strongly opposed to the Clean Power Plan and wants to cut the EPA's budget. Clinton, on the other hand, strongly supports the plan and explicitly stated during the Democratic primary debate in New York City that Garland's appointment is necessary to move past the legal stasis and move forward with these regulations.

Worker's rights. "It's hard to pick just one" action that the Obama administration has undertaken, Covert said. "But some actions taken by the Department of Labor are really significant."

She noted that the Obama administration's new overtime rules affect 4.2 million people who were not previously eligible, "which will mean these workers will either be owed more money for working extra hours or will have their schedules brought back to a more sane 40-hour workweek."

Added Covert: "The rule ensures that millions will get either more money or more time in an era when people are overworked and wages are mostly stagnant."

Restoring scientific integrity to the federal government. "Within a month of taking office," Shawn Otto, author of "The War on Science," said of Obama by email, "his first executive orders included establishing a scientific integrity and transparency initiative that stopped political interference in government agencies so that policies could come to be based on the best available evidence rather than the ideological agendas of agency appointees or elected officials."

Added Otto: "Trump has shown that he has little regard for the facts." He said, "Clinton has shown a much greater ability to surround herself with reasoned expert advisors and to base decisions on the best available facts instead of ideological agendas or personal whims."

Supporting better policing. One of the reasons Black Lives Matters is taking off, I'd argue, is because of hope. There's reason to believe that anti-police brutality activists are being heard in a way that wouldn't be possible under a Republican president. Under Obama's leadership, the Department of Justice has repeatedly taken action to address nationwide complaints about police brutality and racial bias.

While the increase in DOJ investigations of local police forces has not quite produced the results that activists would have hoped for, the display of commitment from the federal government has buoyed hopes that things can get better. Clinton has been aggressive in her support for continuing the interventions, suggesting that the government should improve law enforcement training to combat implicit bias in policing.

Trump, on the other hand, likes to portray black Americans as living in a war zone and routinely suggests what's needed is a sterner law-and-order crackdown, rather than a police force committed to treating all people fairly under the law.

Protecting the elderly. When asked about Obama's contribution to the lives of older Americans, Millhiser cited a move that has helped chip away at a legal maneuver that conservatives and corporate interests have widely deployed to deny elderly Americans their rights.

"I'll say the recently announced [Department of Health and Human Services] regulations cutting off Medicare and Medicaid payments to nursing homes that use forced arbitration clauses," Millhiser offered. "It highlights . . . this administration's ability to see wonky solutions to those problems. Forced arbitration is as sweeping an attack on Americans' legal rights as they come, because your rights don't mean very much if they can't be enforced."

Covert noted, "The Department of Labor also rolled out new protections for retirees that got even less fanfare but require financial advisers to put clients' interests ahead of their own." She said, "That's important given that pensions have all but disappeared and most people have to rely on smart 401k investments to be able to afford to retire."

[jwplayer file="" image=""][/jwplayer]

Protecting college students. The Obama administration has made "a multi-pronged effort to stop widespread harm caused by for-profit colleges and a nonprofit that accredited them, and to prevent more students from being defrauded and saddled with huge debts that they have a hard time repaying," Peter Montgomery of People for the American Way explained over email. "That is regulation with the well-being of vulnerable people in mind."

Access to reproductive health care. In the debates, all matters pertaining to reproductive health issue were flattened down into a question about the Supreme Court and abortion. In the real world, the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to make it easier for women to access reproductive health care.

In 2012, Health and Human Services ruled that contraception is preventive health care, shedding the need for women to fork out co-payments, like for other preventive services like vaccines. This choice was wildly resisted by conservatives, who launched moderately successful efforts to chip away at this, but the number of women who have received this type coverage has risen dramatically since then.

Obama's Health and Human Services has also gone to great lengths to defend Planned Parenthood. It has refused to roll over for Republican efforts to defund the organization and has reminded states that blocking Medicaid patients from going to Planned Parenthood clinics is against the law.

Clinton has a long history of pushing for the expansion of contraception access: She worked as a U.S. senator to instigate a massive pressure campaign on the George W. Bush administration to allow emergency contraception to be sold over the counter — and has promised to do everything in her power to protect women's access to abortion and affordable birth control.

Trump, meanwhile, wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would end co-pay-free preventive services, for care that includes helping women gain contraception. He has also promised to defund Planned Parenthood, cutting millions off from contraception access.

The two presidential candidate seems to be night and day when it comes to their stances on assortment of issues, including they have some idea how government actually works and whether it's normal for someone to brag about committing sexual assault.

But one of the most important and least discussed differences comes down to basic competence in the skills related to running the massive tangle of federal bureaucracies that is our government.

"Clinton actually has a deep understanding of the important work that federal bureaucracies do to protect workers, consumers, communities and the environment," Montgomery said. "Trump seems to know nothing whatsoever, relying on a right-wing caricature of bureaucrats as sinister creatures who spend tax dollars coming up with devious ways to regulate companies out of business."

The Democratic presidential nominee has a tremendous gift for understanding and developing policy, Millhiser said, "maybe even more so than President Obama."

He added: "Trump can't pay attention to one thing long enough to read an entire graphic novel."

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

MORE FROM Amanda Marcotte