Is Barack Obama an imperial president?President Obama’s use of executive action to get around congressional gridlock is unparalleled in modern times, some scholars say. But to liberal activists, he’s not going far enough.
Christian Science Monitor
By Linda Feldmann | Christian Science Monitor – 1 hr 29 mins ago
Ju Hong's voice rang out loud and clear, interrupting the most powerful man in the world.
"You have a power to stop deportation for all undocumented immigrants in this country!" the young South Korean man yelled at President Obama during a speech on immigration reform last November in San Francisco. Waving away security guards, Mr. Obama turned and addressed Mr. Hong, himself undocumented. "Actually, I don't," the president said. "And that's why we're here."
"We've got this Constitution, we've got this whole thing about separation of powers," Obama continued. "So there is no shortcut to politics, and there's no shortcut to democracy."
The reality isn't so simple. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, was once skeptical of the aggressive use of presidential power. During the 2008 campaign, he accused President George W. Bush of regularly circumventing Congress. Yet as president, Obama has grown increasingly bold in his own use of executive action, at times to controversial effect.
The president (or his administration) has unilaterally changed elements of the Affordable Care Act (ACA); declared an anti-gay-rights law unconstitutional; lifted the threat of deportation for an entire class of undocumented immigrants; bypassed Senate confirmation of controversial nominees; waived compliance requirements in education law; and altered the work requirements under welfare reform. This month, the Obama administration took the highly unusual step of announcing that it will recognize gay marriages performed in Utah – even though Utah itself says it will not recognize them while the issue is pending in court.
Early in his presidency, Obama also expanded presidential warmaking powers, surveillance of the American public, and extrajudicial drone strikes on alleged terrorists outside the United States, including Americans – going beyond Mr. Bush's own global war on terror following 9/11. But more recently, he has flexed his executive muscle more on domestic policy.
In the process, Obama's claims of executive authority have infuriated opponents, while emboldening supporters to demand more on a range of issues, from immigration and gay rights to the minimum wage and Guantánamo Bay prison camp.
To critics, Obama is the ultimate "imperial president," willfully violating the Constitution to further his goals, having failed to convince Congress of the merits of his arguments. To others, he is exercising legitimate executive authority in the face of an intransigent Congress and in keeping with the practices of past presidents.
The course of Obama's final three years in office, in which he has promised continuing assertive use of executive action, will be shaped by this debate.
The tug of history
On the eve of Obama's fifth State of the Union message, on Jan. 28, the president faces a steep challenge. His job approval has plummeted to the low 40s, following the disastrous rollout of his health-care reform and public outrage over massive data collection by the National Security Agency. Unemployment is falling steadily but remains high, at 6.7 percent.
"We're 4-1/2 years into an alleged recovery, and most Americans still think we're in a recession," says William Galston, a Clinton White House veteran and scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Even though Obama will never face the voters again, he has plenty of incentive to boost his game. Now he's playing for his legacy, and the judgment of the history books. Politically, he's playing for the final national election of his presidency – next November's midterms, in which Democratic control of the Senate is at risk. Reclaiming the House from the Republicans is close to impossible. Divided government is Obama's near-certain reality for the rest of his presidency.
Still, keeping the Senate in Democratic hands remains critical to Obama's legacy: It will allow him to confirm presidential nominees – including most judges, who have lifetime tenure – with a simple majority after Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid engineered a rule change last November.
Restoring public confidence in Obama's trustworthiness and competence as an executive is also critical, as the president tries to move beyond the "Obamacare" fiasco and National Security Agency snooping. Republicans are already firmly lashing the health reform's woes to Democratic candidates' necks. But nothing will impress voters more than a sense that their personal financial situation is improving. Cue Obama's focus on what he calls "the defining challenge of our time," growing inequality and a lack of upward mobility. It will be a central theme in the State of the Union message, including a call for Congress to boost the federal minimum wage.
Early in the new year, White House officials were cautiously optimistic that the December budget deal may signal new momentum toward bipartisan cooperation, at least in future budgetary and fiscal matters. Republicans would rather keep the spotlight on Obamacare woes than risk public blame for another government shutdown or more brinkmanship over the debt ceiling, which the Treasury Department says will be reached in late February.
But one point is certain: It's a new day for Team Obama. John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Clinton and a turnaround artist, has put on his cape and swooped into the West Wing for a one-year tour as a counselor. The president has also brought back the highly regarded Phil Schiliro to oversee the continuing health-care rollout and made deputy communications director (and Capitol Hill insider) Katie Beirne Fallon his legislative affairs director.
But it's the arrival of Mr. Podesta that has Washington buzzing. He ran the Obama transition after his first election and then repaired to his think tank, the Center for American Progress, resisting entreaties to join the administration. Most important, his passion is climate change, and he's a big believer in executive action – by the president himself, as well as via agency rules and regulations.
"I think [White House officials] were naturally preoccupied with legislating at first, and I think it took them a while to make the turn to execution. They are focused on that now," Podesta told Politico last year before agreeing to his new White House gig. "They have to realize that the president has broad authority, that he's not just the prime minister. He can drive a whole range of action. They always grasped that on foreign policy and in the national security area. Now they are doing it on the domestic side."
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