What Obama could not achieve through these lengthy negotiations with Congress he mandated unilaterally in his signing statement. And some Members of Congress have publicly objected that the president’s signing statement even removed provisions that had been worked out in negotiations between the branches and that Obama had promised to lawmakers in order to secure their votes on the bill.
Obama might or might not be right that certain provisions of legislative enactments violate presidential authority or principles of separation of powers. Such weighty issues are appropriate for resolution through a process of deliberation and accommodation between the political branches. Signing statements that attempt to change law are the kind of unilateral presidential actions that strike a serious blow against the core principles of separation of powers and the rule of law, especially when the president acts to nullify agreements with Congress that made passage of a bill possible in the first place.
Candidate Obama adopted the constitutionally correct position in 2008. He directly criticized his predecessor for changing “what Congress passed by attaching a letter saying ‘I don’t agree with this part’ or ‘I don’t agree with that part.’” Candidate Obama correctly added, “Congress’ job is to pass legislation. The president can veto it or he can sign it.”
President Obama, though, has acted differently in this area and much more in line with the predecessor he had criticized than with his own campaign promise.
Jeffrey Crouch is assistant professor of American politics at American University. Mark J. Rozell is professor of public policy at George Mason University. Mitchel A. Sollenberger is assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.