Schoolhouse Rock and Executive Powers

Good ole’ Schoolhouse Rock! Who doesn’t remember the classic Disney videos from their youth? Those catchy and brief videos were a mainstay in the wonderful, fluorescent-light saturated classroom of my childhood. But, would those now-vintage Disney videos be enough to entertain my 2014 6th grade US History class?

Teaching the complex and nuanced functions of our country’s government to 6th grade girls is a challenge to be sure (more on teaching challenges in an upcoming post). To prime their eager minds, we watched the Schoolhouse Rock classic, “I’m Just a Bill.” As I stood and observed the reaction, I was amazed. My students were snapping, bobbing their heads, and asked to watch it again. Hoorah for vintage Disney! But now came the real work…what had the students actually gotten from that video?

Occasionally in my millennial-teacher pessimism, I find it difficult to believe most average adults could explain the process for how a bill becomes a law in America. But not my students! They will be our beacons of knowledge (says the over-optimistic Montessori teacher in me). As we began to trace out the process on the board, however, I could see connections being made for how this complex process works. Some energetic comments students contributed during our work included the need for “everyone to work together to get anything done” as well as “this sounds like it takes a long time.” I’m sure President Obama and anyone serving in Congress currently would agree with you! As my students departed from class that day, I could not have imagined how perfect my timing would be with my lesson. President Obama and the cast of Saturday Night Live were going to give me fantastic material to extend my lesson (the link connects to SNL's schoolhouse rock skit).

While I am positive most of our wonderful readers are familiar with “Bill” and his trip up Capitol Hill, I have included Disney’s classic video for your educational entertainment.

Now, what exactly does Saturday Night Live to do with our beloved country’s legislative process? For the sake of brevity, I will be keeping my discussion of President Obama and his use of executive power to just this most recent issue parodied by Saturday Night Live. The show’s writers found inspiration (as they typically do) in action taken by President Obama this past November.

On several occasions during his tenure in office, President Obama has made statements and comments describing his stance on whether or not to shield illegal immigrants in America from deportation. Now, I will not pretend I personally have an answer to this question, believing much like the President stated back in 2013, “this is something I have struggled with...The problem is I am President of the United States, not the Emperor of the United States. My job is to execute laws that are passed.”  The problem seemed to come to a boiling point this past November, when the President turned to executive action to shield four million illegal immigrants facing deportation. The issues and questions surrounding the President’s actions are numerous. Is his use of “executive action” legal? How does this affect us? How does this affect the economy? Is there anyway Congress could prevent this action? How is this different than an “executive order”? And the list continues. Thankfully, Max Ehrenfreund at the Washington Post compiled a fantastic article detailing these questions. When my students began asking similar questions I thought to myself, “I wonder if people realize President Obama is not our first President to use executive power to make a move on an issue pressing our country?”

While working at President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington D.C., we spoke with students and visitors about difficult decisions Abraham Lincoln made in his quiet country home during his presidency. Obviously, the issue of slavery consumed his thoughts. The staff at the Cottage helped visitors reconstruct a man whose views on slavery were complex, personal, and ever-evolving. One of my personal favorite quotes greets visitors on the second floor of the Cottage. In an 1862 letter written to New York Tribune editor, Horace Greeley, Lincoln penned, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union.” Let’s just say, the look of surprise on people’s faces when they heard this was pretty common.

Lincoln’s reputation as The Great Emancipator certainly precedes him today. It does Lincoln a disservice, however, to think that his politics and brilliance happened overnight. His ideas, statements and actions evolved from support for sending slaves back to Africa via "colonization" to pressing cabinet members to secure Congressional support for the 13th Amendment. This evolution of thought is what made Lincoln a remarkably human leader. His legal prowess led him to seek a temporary solution to slavery with the “free some and leave others alone” approach; we know this better as the Emancipation Proclamation.

Couching his proclamation as a necessary wartime measure to weaken to Confederacy while bolstering support for the Union cause, Lincoln used his executive power to make a move. His esteemed cabinet members were not exactly sold on the idea, but his persistence (and psuedo-victory at the Battle of Antietam) swayed them on the issue. Hm, this sounds familiar. A President has some beliefs about a particularly pressing issue and even expresses those beliefs early in his Presidency. As time goes by, however, he turns to executive powers to make a move on the pressing issue.  Certainly sounds familiar!

There is one major difference between President Obama’s most recent executive actions on immigration and Lincoln’s work to end slavery: America is not embroiled in a horrific Civil War. First, thank goodness! Second, this comparison is only meant to point to the possibility that politicians, even Presidents, can change their understanding of issues. Presidents too, are human. Their ideas are allowed to evolve. Lincoln’s evolution on the issue of slavery made him a few friends but far more detractors. President Obama should be prepared to convince the masses of his evolution with the same level of persistence Lincoln did. He does have an advantage, however, that Lincoln did not. When it came to slavery, some Americans shied away from the issue or downplayed its importance. It was a necessity to some, a matter of convenience to others, and the utmost violation of human law to many. Luckily for President Obama, while Americans disagree about how to go about it and what it would entail, nearly all would say our approach to immigration is in dire need of overhaul.

Sources and Further Reading:

New York Times, Michael D. Shear.  "For Obama, executive order on immigration would be a turnabout." November 17, 2014.

Max Ehrenfreund, The Washington Post. "Your complete guide to Obama's immigration executive action." November 20, 2014. 

McPherson, James. Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 2008.