Because our Founding Fathers wanted to avoid the creation of another monarchy as they had escaped in England, they wrote into our Constitution, three co-equal branches of government replete with checks and balances between them. At the same time, having established a central government with a presidency, a limited number of narrow, unilateral powers were assigned to that high office so as to not completely hamstring the chief executive. Among those was the freedom to issue what we call “Executive Orders” (EOs). What was not part of that accommodation was the license to take the nation to war independent of a formal declaration by vote of Congress. Given this framework, we can now turn to what conservatives have labeled the “imperial” presidency of Barack Obama and examine it within the historical context provided by the last 30+ years of American presidencies.
In 1983, Ronald Reagan invaded the tiny island-nation of Grenada. The Congress at the time, acquiesced and never insisted on holding the aforementioned vote (*). Much the same thing happened prior to our 2003 invasion of Iraq. In that instance, the Congress passed the Patriot Act which expanded the war powers of then-President GW Bush who also had United Nations’ backing for initiating hostilities. The point to be made here is that in the last three decades, we have had two Republican presidents who acted in quasi-imperial fashion because the Congresses at the time, allowed them to do so. Simply put, if Congress giveth, a president is likely to taketh!! The closest that President Obama has come to doing anything remotely close to the same thing involved the logistic support he gave Libyan rebels as they sought to overthrow Gadhaffi.
Now we come to the presidential use of EOs. The record shows that Reagan and GW Bush, in their two terms, issued a total of 381 and 291 of them, respectively. In his six years, Obama has generated 182 and is on a pace to fall short of the numbers generated by his two predecessors. So, conservatives’ railing against Obama’s “imperial” presidency can’t objectively be based on how many EOs the current president has produced (+). No, it has to be the contents of those EOs and in particular, how they exceed constitutional authority.
Earlier this year, House Republicans convened a panel of constitutional scholars, seeking from them, learned opinions on what EOs by Obama were excessive. Armed with this information, Speaker Boehner has just this week, identified one such EO. Specifically, it involved the president’s unilateral decision to delay the implementation of the “employer mandate” that is integral to the Affordable Care Act; i.e. Obamacare. The Speaker’s contention, now part of a law suit aimed at Obama, is that the president infringed on the sole constitutional responsibility of the Congress to legislate, choosing to make a unilateral change in the law himself (**).
The Speaker’s position is remarkably free of any recollection of an EO issued by GW Bush as part of the implementation of his signature Medicare Part-D legislation. The roll-out of that prescription drug program had its own set of unique problems. In the context of Boehner’s law suit, the nature of those difficulties matters less than what then-President Bush did about them; i.e. he bypassed Congress and took unilateral action to fix them. The silence from the GOP-controlled Congress at the time was “deafening”.
A dispassionate examination of all this history would lead to the three unarguable conclusions that Obama’s “imperialistic” behavior: (1) was perfectly acceptable when practiced by Republican presidents; (2) pales in comparison to that of Reagan and GW Bush; and (3) is more conservative hyperbole’ and hypocrisy; a product of their visceral hatred of the man more than his policies and behavior. In other words, it’s personal!!!
*Readers may be surprised to learn that the last formal congressional vote to declare war came after the Japanese attack on us in December 1941. Since then, we have been involved in major wars in Korea, Viet Nam, Afghanistan and Iraq without that same level of congressional authorization.
+Never under-estimate conservatives’ capacity to turn a blind eye to objective evidence, especially if it puts one of their own in a bad light.
**This topic was introduced in broad terms in the blog “Impeachment Lite” that was recently published at this site.