Five Executive Orders That Obama Could Sign Right Now to Advance the Cause of Progress

Michelle Obama's bullied heckler had a point. The president continues to disappoint his base.

Photo Credit: Action Sports Photography/


The pen can be mightier than the sword, especially in Washington when Congress is tied up in knots. But President Obama has disappointed progressives on a range of issues by not putting the White House’s weight behind executive orders on many issues, from public health to GLBT rights to campaign finance reform. 

Conservatives bemoan many of the executive actions that Obama has taken, such as restoring federal research into gun-related violence or ending federal prosecution of young adults at colleges and universities without legal documents because of their parent’s immigration status.

But there is so much more tht he could be doing. “Particularly in the area of environmental, health and safety regulation, the Administration has lacked a sense of urgency,” says Center for Progressive Reform Policy Analyst James Goodwin. “The clock’s ticking and they’re missing deadlines. We’d hoped the President would use executive orders to put a jolt into his Administration on that front, but for the most part, he’s missing the opportunity.”

Here are five issue areas where the President could be fighting harder for a public-interest agenda that reflects progressive values and aspirations.

1. Sexual discrimination in the workplace. Ellen Sturtz, a GLBT activist who interrupted Michelle Obama’s speech at a Washington findraiser Tuesday night was seeking an order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Sturtz was bullied by the First Lady and other attendees to leave the private home where the event occurred. The president has said he had changed his mind on gay marriage, but that’s not the same as directing one-fifth of the nation’s economy—federal contractors—from abiding by higher standards.

2. Environmental Justice and Children’s Health. The Center for Progressive Reform, a Washington-based advocacy group, issued this report early in Obama’s first term with seven suggested orders, including telling federal agencies to consider and measure the impact of polluting industries on communities of color and impact of toxic chemicals on children. The group issued another report as Obama’s second term began restating that demand, as encouraging federal regulators to take a more proactive and pre-emptive look at the decisions that end up creating less healthy places to live and adult disease.

3. Federal contractors disclose campaign spending. Groups such as Public Citizen have been calling for Obama to require that all federal contractors disclose their spending on political campaigns and lobbying, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court and lower federal courts have continued to deregulate federal campaign finance laws, and as new loopholes were pioneered in recent years to the identities of negative campaigners. The White House began this process before the 2012 election but has since abandoned it.

4. Revoke other Bush Era executive actions. The Center for Progressive Reform notes the Bush administrationprioritized the development of energy resources on public lands over conservation and resource protection. It noted that it also undermined a victim’s right to sue in federal court when states pass laws that attack federal policy. These and other reactionary policies linger and have allowed today’s GOP to thumb their noses at the federal government under the umbrella of state rights, most notably with refusing to implement Obamacare’s expansion of state-run Medicaid for low-income people.

5. Include foreign guest workers under OSHA. Whle Congress is debating immigration reform to increase the numbers of visa to be issued to foreigners up and down the economic ladder, the White House could issue an order expanding the health and safety protections of federal law to day laborers and other “contingent workers.” Immigration reform efforts have largely focused on bringing in more high-tech workers, but there are other visa catagories and the H2B visa for non-farm, non-tech workers has been called “21st Century Slavery” by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Although the Obama White House has issued scores of executive orders and taken innumerable actions, just signing a piece of paper does not always translate into reality. One of Obama’s first executive orders was to close the military’s prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which was blocked by congressional Repubicans. Obama has recently said that he still wants to shut the Bush-era prison, but that too has not yet happened. 


Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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