Obama executive order nothing to storm the castle over

David Martosko Executive Editor
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On Friday President Obama signed an executive order titled “National Defense Resources Preparedness,” and by Saturday the conservative Twitterverse had erupted into righteous indignation, organized under the hashtag #ExecOrder. But the 140-character expressions of outrage and the anti-Obama tea party angst masked the fact that very little in the presidential proclamation is new.

Most of it combines existing executive orders from Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Those earlier orders refined similar statements from Presidents Harry Truman and Richard Nixon.

And Truman and Nixon, it turns out, were both updating language from President Roosevelt after the passage of the Defense Production Act in 1950.

While Obama’s executive order is written in sophisticated legislative verbiage, its aim should be clear to anyone who reads it from front to back as I did. (You’re welcome.)

And Microsoft Word has a nifty “compare” feature that combines two documents into a single version with every single difference, no matter how small, spelled out in red. It’s a huge time-saver.

So what’s new since 1994?

When Bill Clinton issued his version of the plan to prepare the country for some unstated national military emergency, most disaster response functions were assigned to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Today, those functions belong to the Department of Homeland Security, whose sub-agencies include FEMA. Most of the significant changes from Clinton’s order to Obama’s involve reassigning FEMA’s old duties to DHS — which didn’t exist when Clinton was president. Obama did this in 10 separate places.

But in large part, the function of this executive order — in all its historical incarnations — is to clearly delineate what each cabinet secretary is responsible for if the country should go kablooey.

Obama also axed the FEMA director’s prior role as a tie-breaking vote whenever two cabinet secretaries might disagree about allocating resources in a time of emergency. From now on that decision will land on the president’s desk.

After the black eye FEMA got — deserved or not — following Hurricane Katrina, this is at minimum a smart PR move.

Obama also red-lined the Export-Import Bank of the United States from Clinton’s order completely. But even that is probably meaningless: The Ex-Im Bank’s charter is set to expire this year, but Obama is strongly in favor of its renewal.

Another curious change involves the Department of Agriculture’s mandate. New language from Obama includes, for the first time, “livestock resources, veterinary resources, [and] plant health resources.”

It also expands the definition of “food resources” to include “potable water packaged in commercially marketable containers.” On the other hand, Obama has curiously eliminated tobacco form the list of things the government can — and has been able to since before any of us were born — control if an unfriendly power should ever drop the big one on New York City.  

All of this seems completely sensible.

Still, breathless statements flooded Twitter over the weekend, by Sunday reaching a pace of about 20 per minute.

“To Obamabots and other asleep #Americans: Wake the hell up! New Executive Order dated March 16th. Prepare yourselves!” read one.

“Obama’s ‘Dictator’ executive order. Read it & tell me if you REALLY believe Hitler comparisons are legit,” said another.

Other tweets warned that Obama aims to “make it easier to push America N2 totalitarianism like China” and had seized “the power to STOP ALL ELECTIONS.” One Twitter user said that in the wake of the executive order, “I’ve decided to buy stock in Guillotine companies.”

The most common tweeted phrase about the executive order, by far, was “peacetime martial law.”

The narrow span of initial reactions from conservative websites ranged from “stunning” and “harassing”  to “totalitarian” and “the blueprint for Peacetime Martial Law.” One typical thread simply declared that the president had “gone too far.”

What’s maddening about this, aside from the fact that so few commentators, clearly, had actually read the order, is the knee-jerk assumption that Barack Obama is somehow less trustworthy — at the molecular level — with his constitutional powers than was Bill Clinton.

Yes, the Internet has turned political events into tinder with a ferocity Clinton never faced. And yes, the political right harbors an intense distrust of the Oval Office’s current occupant.

But the idea that he would, in an election year, suddenly declare himself the singular steward and controller of all private property, or put himself in solitary control of the water supply or reinstitute the draft — all accusations I’ve read online in the past day — is ludicrous.

If you want to see what any legislative or regulatory language really means, skip over all the nouns (like food, water, fertilizer and fuel) and look at the verbs.

Columnist Ed Morrissey spotted a few in Obama’s executive order: “identify,” “assess,” “prepare,” “improve,” “foster [cooperation],” “provide.” These aren’t exactly words that suggest lots of action. I don’t see “usurp,” “hijack” or “shanghai.”

I also don’t see anything in the executive order that establishes a new legal authority of any kind. Not only is the language old hat, but it spells out which laws the White House is relying on for its authority.

So this is all pretty thin soup.

If we can’t trust the president — any president — to look at what’s going on and make his cabinet secretaries play nice, we have bigger problems than who’s going to control the next corn crop if Putin starts punching in launch codes instead of his ATM password.

So everyone just chill, okay? It’s time to crumple up those tinfoil hats. At least for a week or so.

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