Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote “The Imperial Presidency” in 1973 to call to attention President Richard Nixon’s vast abuses of executive authority to circumvent Constitutional limitations of the office. Democrats have since described a number of Republican Presidents, including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush as being imperial Presidents. But as Barack Obama continues to push the limits of Presidential power, those who have traditionally rallied against the onset of Presidential imperialism are noticeably silent.
In an updated edition of his treatise against Presidential imperialism, Schlesinger writes:
The Imperial Presidency reached a twentieth-century climax with Nixon. The post-Watergate reaction cut back on some presidential excesses. None of Nixon’s successors, for example, used emergency powers against political opponents. The presidency of Jimmy Carter even led to concerns about the impotency of the office. “We have not an imperial presidency,” former president Gerald Ford said in 1980, “but an imperiled presidency.” But such lamentations were soon refuted when Ronald Reagan showed that a president with only a misty understanding of issues could still dominate the government and lead the country.
In a 2004 re-issue of “The Imperial Presidency”, Schlesinger added more recent abuses of Presidential power, including the vast expansion of power laid out in the Patriot Act and Bush’s unConstitutional wars. Schlesinger died in 2007 before the onset of the Obama Administration. But even though Schlesinger was a lifelong Democrat, most historians would probably argue that the Obama Presidency fits into his definition of the imperial President.
Last Friday a U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. ruled unConstitutional the power grab Obama made just over a year ago when he made three appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and appointed a director to the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau—all of which required “advice and consent” of the Senate per the Constitution—unilaterally. Obama justified the appointments by using the Appointments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which allows the President to “fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session.” But when Obama made those appointments, the Senate was in session.
“Allowing the president to define the scope of his own appointment power would eviscerate the Constitution’s separation of powers,” Chief Judge David Sentelle wrote in the 46-page ruling.
The case will likely go to the Supreme Court.
Another example of President Obama’s imperialist tendencies occurred last year when he consulted the United Nations, and not Congress, in deciding to engage in what boiled down to a preemptive war in Libya.
The current President’s foreign and domestic policy procedures for combating terrorist threats (i.e. NDAA, remnants of the Patriot Act, drone strikes in countries where the U.S. isn’t at war and the killing of American citizens) fall almost in lockstep with the policies that earned Bush the title “Imperialist President.”
The President has vowed to push an ambitious second-term agenda—complete with draconian new gun control policies— with “a judicious use of executive power” if Congress fails to comply with his wishes.
“[W]hat I do see is that there are certain issues where a judicious use of executive power can move the argument forward or solve problems that are of immediate-enough import that we can’t afford not to do it,” Obama said in a recent interview.
And the President’s willingness to act unilaterally is evidenced by his use of signing statements and executive actions— like his 2012 order that barred the deportation of young illegal immigrants to the country. More recently, the President deemed the mass shooting incidents that have sparked the Nation’s current debate over gun control as being “of immediate-enough import” to issue 23 separate Presidential directives related to gun ownership.
It remains to be seen just how imperial the Presidency could become under an Obama unworried about the challenges of reelection. Many conservatives fear that every Federal agency is rife for abuse via executive fiat in the coming years, especially if Congress remains as ineffective as it was during Obama’s first term.