Again and again, presidents overreach their authority. It’s always a danger, and maybe there’s a penalty such as public disapproval. Richard Nixon got caught in criminal conduct and was forced to resign.
What’s the penalty going to be this time? President Barack Obama has been up to some powerful autocratic mischief, but it seems more likely to boost than hurt his re-election chances.
The latest adventure was his decision to stop the deportation of illegal aliens younger than 30 who came to the United States before age 15 and have stayed out of legal trouble. There have been whoops and cheers, and there’s little question it will increase his support among Latinos, whose votes are crucial this election year.
The problem is that the policy runs counter to law and Obama’s constitutional pledge to uphold it. Obama himself once said he couldn’t leapfrog Congress on this issue, but he did just that. The possibilities of legal reversal seem slim.
Both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have published stories about Obama starting his tenure in a checks-and-balances frame of mind and then converting to a flex-your-muscles point of view. Though he at first wanted to work with Congress, he grew anxious when the Republicans took over the House two years into his administration. Afraid of getting nothing done, he decided to make the most of executive powers and adopted a slogan: “We can’t wait.”
Thus, the administration did not wait for Congress to enact a cap-and-trade law and instead had the Environmental Protection Agency step in with toughened regulations on greenhouse gases. And thus Obama’s team did not wait for Congress to rejigger the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which seemed possible. Instead, the administration started a process of letting states get out from under the education law’s demands.
Still other moves indicated Congress just does not matter to this White House. The president engaged the American military in Libya without seeking congressional authorization and made recess appointments without Senate approval. The Constitution allows recess appointments, the problem in this case being that there was no recess under law.
None of these or numerous other power splurges are as bad as President George W. Bush’s abuses, some Obama defenders say. Maybe the defenders did not notice that, like Bush, Obama has issued so-called signing statements when signing bills into laws, in effect negating parts of them.On the terrorism front, Obama ended Bush’s tough interrogations — characterized as torture by many critics — but continued “rendition,” the practice of sending terrorism suspects to foreign prisons where the United States has no control. The president also has continued indefinite detention and warrantless surveillance, and meanwhile has endorsed the right to kill Americans abroad without due process if they are considered enemy combatants.
While some conservatives might applaud some emulations of Bush, they are generally the ones voicing the most outrage over Obama’s power abuses. There are, however, concerned liberals. One of the most outspoken is Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. He has worried that adulation of Obama has led liberals to be soft on his civil liberties violations.
Conservative legal theorist Michael McConnell of Stanford University summed up the hazard of Obama’s imperial impudence. Quoted in a Wall Street Journal article March 30, he said that while checks and balances can lead to “gridlock,” that’s “better than unchecked power in the hands of one person.” Others note that if Obama can get away with these power grabs, so might Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney if elected — and on issues that will make the left as furious as the right is now.
What’s at stake are limited government, rule of law and republican governance, and they are presently losing while Obama wins.