In an interview on 60 Minutes last month, the Republican Speaker of the House, Rep. Paul Ryan, was being asked about his opinions of Donald Trump. One of his answers included the following quote (emphasis is mine):

"We've talked about the Constitution, Article 1 of the Constitution, the separation of powers. He feels very strongly actually that under President Obama's watch, he's stripped a lot of power away from the Constitution, away from the legislative branch of government, and we want to reset the balance of power so that people and the constitution are rightfully restored."

Source: full televised segment (starts at 2:08)

Question: Has power been stripped from the Constitution (e.g. powers or responsibilities of the government's system of checks & balances) during President Obama term?

  • 6
    I think by 'power stripping' he means excessive use of executive orders which are one of the powers of the president. Did he give actual examples? (I doubt it) it's just political talk. His predecessor Bush used much more executive orders than Obama.
    – Noah
    Jan 8, 2017 at 5:02
  • 1
    I'm not sure how meaningful it is to talk of stripping power from the Constitution itself, but it does make sense to consider whether Obama actually took powers that the Constitution allows the legislative (or judicial) branch and/or whether Obama used powers not granted to any branch of the federal government. I'm not aware of any powers being granted to the Constitution. Jan 8, 2017 at 7:48

1 Answer 1


Barack Obama used executive discretion in ways that previous presidents had not. For example, he created a visa program that allowed undocumented immigrants to live and work in the United States. He did so without supporting legislation from Congress.

Note that this exceeds the normal definition of prosecutorial discretion. Not only did he not deport these people, but he actually gave them a quasi-legal status. Yet there is no law that says that the president can simply provide legal status to immigrants without following the normal procedures.

Obama signed an international treaty without getting ratification from the Senate.

Obama appointed people to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) without Senate approval. While this was ultimately reversed, they were making decisions for some months first.

There is also an argument that Congress has delegated too much legislative power to the executive branch. For example, the aforementioned NLRB has certain regulatory powers. Some have argued that regulations are themselves legislation and should be passed by Congress. A similar argument ended the line item veto in 1998.

There's some confusion in the comments about executive orders. Focusing on executive orders is misleading. First, Obama has often substituted presidential memoranda for executive orders. From USA Today:

President Obama has issued a form of executive action known as the presidential memorandum more often than any other president in history — using it to take unilateral action even as he has signed fewer executive orders.

More importantly, most executive orders do not violate the constitution in any way. For example, Obama's second executive order simply created a requirement applied during the hiring process for political appointees. It only affected government employees, not everyday citizens. Focusing on raw numbers of executive orders, presidential memoranda, or whatever is the wrong approach.

Note for example that DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the visa program from the first paragraph, was not started by an executive order nor even a presidential memorandum. It was initiated by a memorandum issued by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano (not Obama). It has a fee, a form, and offers something like legal status. All without empowering legislation.

DACA may eventually be torn down by the courts, but that's a slow process. We're now in the third year and it's still being appealed.

  • 2
    Did he use executive orders for the visa program? Also regarding illegal immigrants, he's not the only one that granted them legal status. Remember Reagan? One thing I do agree on is that executive orders are basically blank checks and need to have set strict limits as to when and how they are used. Good answer to the question.
    – Noah
    Jan 8, 2017 at 14:31
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    Killer066, Yes Obama used executive orders (and no law) for his visa program, and No, Reagan did not. The "Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA)" was a law voted by the congress and signed by him.
    – Joël
    Jan 8, 2017 at 18:09
  • 1
    I would say we should go further in expanding the capacity of executive orders. The legislative branch has become ineffective, corrupt, and filled with politicians who are not beholden to their constituents anymore.
    – DeepS1X
    Jan 9, 2017 at 2:02
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    -1. This answer is misleading in that it implies these types of things are unique to Obama as president. Which is simply untrue. What Ryan said was merely partisan punditry.
    – user1530
    Jan 10, 2017 at 1:36
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    Regarding treaties and ratification, that's how it's supposed to work. The president signs the treaty and then submits it to the senate for ratification. If the senate refuses to ratify, then the treaty doesn't take effect or the US doesn't participate. There must be hundreds of signed-but-not-ratified treaties in the world, and the US certainly has more than the one you cite.
    – phoog
    Jan 10, 2017 at 5:14

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