Tag: imperial presidency

It’s All Your Fault, Fickle Friends of the Constitution

There’s an interesting convergence in the news this morning, with Kimberley Strassel in the Wall Street Journal and an article in the New York Times tackling President Obama’s trampling of the separation of powers. Strassel is dubbing Obama’s an “imperial presidency,” and while the Times offers a straight news piece about No Child Left Behind waivers, it too features a strong whiff of presidential imperialism:

Congress has tried and failed repeatedly to reauthorize the education law over the past five years because Democrats and Republicans cannot agree on an appropriate role for the federal government in education. And so, in the heat of an election year, the Obama administration has maneuvered around Congress, using the waivers to advance its own education agenda.

It’s easy and fun, of course, to cry imperialism when it’s the other guy’s party in power, and as Strassel points out many on the left employed such condemnation—not without cause—against George W. Bush.  But that’s precisely the problem: Liberals and conservatives both shunt aside the Constitution when it serves their purposes, but act shocked—shocked!—when the feds or the president employ unconstitutional power to do things they don’t like.

Well guess what, fickle friends of the Constitution: You all righteously shut down the containment unit. You’re all at fault for the demons running rampant.

There’s no better example of this than education, an area over which no federal authority exists yet politicians of both parties have ”helped the children” whenever they’ve felt they could get what they wanted. A heavily Democratic Congress and White House gave us the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act—liberals love spending money on schools—and conservatives decried the wasting of taxpayer dough. With NCLB, a largely Republican Congress and White House  escalated federal control—conservatives love being seen as tough guys who impose “accountability”—and many on the left became apoplectic.  Now President Obama is handing out NCLB waivers contingent on states adopting his favored reforms, and many on the right are rhetorical constitutionalists again.

Here’s the lesson: The next time the guy you despise does something you don’t like, remember when you’ve looked the other way as the Constitution was shoved in a drawer, or torn up, in pursuit of what you wanted. Remember, and heap blame on yourself, because it is your fault.

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One Cheer for Obama’s New Immigration Policy

The new legalization non-deportation policy President Obama announced on Friday, which I’ll call “Executive DREAM,” is really interesting.  A half-measure not worthy of unadorned praise or condemnation, Executive DREAM creates mixed feelings in those of us who want liberalized immigration laws – because immigrants are generally a good thing for a country – but want to see actual, you know, law-making get us there.  Not executive initiatives, not prosecutorial discretion, not administrative-agency diktats, but honest-to-goodness passed-by-Congress-and-signed-by-the-President laws.

I thus join my colleague Alex Nowrasteh in calling this a ”temporary, tepid” immigration fix.   Alex notes that Executive DREAM, if its operation turns out to be similar to the proposed DREAM Act, “will shrink the informal economy, increase economic efficiency, and remove the fear and uncertainty of deportation from potentially millions of otherwise law-abiding people.  It would be a good first step toward reforming immigration and a glimpse at what the Dream Act would do.”

Now, while the result of this little Executive DREAM is good, the manner in which it was promulgated ensures that it will be a short-lived stopgap that prevents real reform and undermines the rule of law.  There’s no reason not to normalize the status of those who would have been eligible for legalization under the DREAM Act, but doing it by executive discretion after Congress had rejected the equivalent legislation shows contempt for a co-equal branch of government.  That President Obama announced it in the midst of an election campaign, after not having spent any political capital on immigration during the first three-and-a-half years of his term, only adds to the corrosive cynicism surrounding the issue.

Our immigration system needs comprehensive reform that will only be achieved with buy-in from both parties.  Executive DREAM feels good and is the least we can do for over a million law-abiding, productive young people, but makes the long-term goal that much harder to achieve.  Indeed, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has already indicated that the president’s actions have essentially sucked the oxygen from his nascent attempts at reform.

Doug Mataconis has a similar take.  He concludes that “this action was made somewhat inevitable by Congress’s failure to act on immigration reform for at least the past six years. When there’s a power vacuum, someone will move in to occupy that space. Unfortunately, that’s what the President has done and, in the process, he’s done real damage to the Separation Of Powers.”

Yemen, Drones, and the Imperial Presidency

Based on a broad theory of executive power, President Obama, and possibly his successor, has the authority to target people for death—including American citizens—without a semblance of transparency, accountability, or congressional consent. Since 9/11, officials and analysts have touted drone strikes as the most effective weapon against al Qaeda and its affiliates. Drones have become a tool of war without the need to declare one. The latest front is Yemen, where a dramatic escalation of drone strikes could be enlisting as many militants as they execute.

“In Yemen, U.S. airstrikes breed anger, and sympathy for al-Qaeda,” a headline blared in last week’s Washington Post. The evidence of radicalization comes from more than 20 interviews with tribal leaders, victims’ relatives, human rights activists, and officials from southern Yemen, an area where U.S. drone strikes have targeted suspected militants affiliated with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The escalating campaign of drone strikes kills civilians along with alleged militants. Tribal leaders and Yemeni officials say these strikes have angered tribesmen who could be helping to prevent AQAP from growing more powerful.

According to the Post, in 2009, U.S. officials claimed that AQAP had nearly 300 core members. Yemeni officials and tribal leaders say that number has grown to 700 or more, with hundreds of tribesmen joining its ranks to fight the U.S.-backed Yemeni government. “That’s not the direction in which the drone strikes were supposed to move the numbers,” wrote the Atlantic’s Robert Wright.

As the majority of U.S. missile assaults shift from Pakistan to Yemen—allowing foreign policy planners to wage undeclared wars on multiple fronts—Americans should pay close attention to a few important and complicating factors that make the conflict in Yemen unique. First, the self-proclaimed Marxist state of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) only merged with its northern neighbor, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), in 1990. In 1994, the two countries fought a bloody civil war that did not result in a smooth reunification. The International Crisis Group’s “Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question” summarizes competing North-South narratives:

Under one version, the war laid to rest the notion of separation and solidified national unity. According to the other, the war laid to rest the notion of unity and ushered in a period of Northern occupation of the South.

Media reports asserting that AQAP is taking advantage of the South’s hunger for independence should be understood in the context of this Northern-Southern divide. Rather than encourage the Yemeni government to respond to southern demands for greater local autonomy, Washington’s tactics are helping the U.S.-backed Yemeni government repress Southern separatists. Indeed, many residents in Abyan, in southern Yemen, claim that the Yemeni government intentionally ceded territory to domestic enemies in order to frighten the West into ensuring more support against the indigenous uprising.

These developments are troubling, as the escalation of drone strikes could be creating the self-fulfilling prophecy of helping alleged AQAP-linked militants gain ground and increasing local sympathy for their cause. As Ben Friedman wrote recently, the misperception that comes with conflating AQAP with the broader insurgency is that it “invites a broad U.S. campaign against Yemen’s southern Islamists, which could heighten their enthusiasm for attacking Americans, creating the menace we feared.” That assessment echoes the sentiment of The Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, who has done intrepid reporting in Yemen. He recently said the campaign being conducted “is going to make it more likely that Yemen becomes a safe haven for those kinds of [terrorist] groups.”

The Oval Office seems to be giving this issue of sympathy short shrift. President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, has publicly argued that the precision of drone strikes limits civilian casualties. However, the New York Times revealed last week that the president and his underlings resort to dubious accounting tricks to low-ball the estimate of civilian deaths, counting “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants” while the Department of Defense even targets suspects in Yemen “whose names they do not know.” The Times’ article recounts one of the administration’s very first strikes in Yemen:

It killed not only its intended target, but also two neighboring families, and left behind a trail of cluster bombs that subsequently killed more innocents. It was hardly the kind of precise operation that Mr. Obama favored. Videos of children’s bodies and angry tribesmen holding up American missile parts flooded You Tube, fueling a ferocious backlash that Yemeni officials said bolstered Al Qaeda.

As foreign policy planners in Washington deepen our military involvement in Yemen, the American people—rather than focusing on the number of senior al Qaeda killed—should be asking whether we’re killing more alleged militants than our tactics help to recruit.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Obama/West Relationship Status Update: ‘It’s Complicated’

Cornel West feels jilted. In an article on him at Truthdig, Princeton’s Professor of African-American Studies and Religion criticizes President Obama for being ungrateful for West’s service to his campaign.

Much of the article reads like post-breakup grumblings. West describes how Obama never calls him back, “but then a month and half later I would run into other people on the campaign and he’s calling them all the time. I said, wow, this is kind of strange. He doesn’t have time, even two seconds, to say thank you or I’m glad you’re pulling for me and praying for me, but he’s calling these other people.”

Most interesting are West’s criticisms of Obama’s presidency. Like many former supporters, Professor West feels betrayed by Obama’s “same as the old boss” policies. In order to explain this, West engages in the quixotic pursuit of pathologizing President Obama. As Ilya Somin and Jonah Goldberg point out, this is oddly reminiscent of Dinesh D’Souza’s recent book, The Roots of Obama’s Rage, and equally confusing. Run-of-the-mill liberal policies from a liberal president don’t need extensive and convoluted explanations.

Pathologizing political opponents is a difficult and largely self-serving task. Although there are many reasons we believe what we do, it does healthy intellectual discourse a disservice to classify opponents rather than try to refute them. Honest disagreements should not be relegated to the pages of the DSM-IV. Usually, this strategy only helps you feel better about your beliefs. While you have reason and arguments supporting your beliefs, all your opponent has is a long line of racial confusion and societal pressures.

According to West, President Obama (“my brother Barack Obama”) “has a certain fear of free black men” caused by his mixed-race background that has made him always “fear being a white man with black skin.” Obama comes from “Kansas influence, white, loving grandparents, coming out of Hawaii and Indonesia, when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow and so on, he is very apprehensive.” Thus, “he has a certain rootlessness, a deracination.”

As Gene Healy has consistently pointed out, President Obama needs no explanation. In the era of the imperial presidency we have presidents who become imperious. Big surprise. What does need an explanation, however, is why Cornel West, an unquestionably intelligent man, still finds this surprising.

Or perhaps he doesn’t. The most striking thing said by West in the article is this: “The tea party folk are right when they say the government is corrupt. It is corrupt. Big business and banks have taken over government and corrupted it in deep ways.” Now, I don’t expect to see Professor West at Glenn Beck rallies, but maybe his disappointment in Obama will lead him to stop believing that the problems with government are personal rather than institutional—that is, that government can be fixed if we just put the right people in office.

Or maybe he’ll just support the next candidate who returns his phone calls.

“But He’s Our Imperial President”

My Washington Examiner column today closes out a three-part series this week on “Obama’s Imperial Presidency” (also running at Reason.com). Tuesday’s column covered Obama’s expansion of executive power abroad, and Wednesday’s looked at the ways in which Obama has turned the Imperial Presidency inward against the private sector.

Today’s column begins with a recap of the powers 44 holds:

Abroad, Obama claims the power to start wars at will; scoop up your email and phone records without answering to a judge; assassinate you via drone strike far from any battlefield, and – should your relatives complain – keep the whole thing secret in the name of national security.

At home, Obama has summarily fired the CEO of General Motors, America’s largest automaker; flouted bankruptcy law to shaft Chrysler’s creditors and pay off his union allies; pressured half-nationalized car companies to produce pokey little electric cars, had his National Labor Relations Board assert veto power over a private company’s decision to move a factory to a “right to work” state; and, via imperial edict, began restructuring the industrial economy by imposing restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions despite Congress’ refusal to pass cap-and-trade legislation.

Left or Right, Red or Blue, no American should be comfortable with any one man wielding that much power. Yet too many Americans embrace a philosophy of “situational constitutionalism”: they only get disturbed about the menacing concentration of power in the executive branch when they don’t care for the guy who has the scepter and the crown:

Conservatives who defended every excess of the Bush administration now rail against Obama’s Imperial Presidency, and liberals who considered the Bush era one long descent into the dark night of fascism seem blithely indifferent to the present Oval Office occupant’s multiplying executive power grabs.

Apparently, phrases like “he killed his own people” only grate when pronounced in a clipped, West Texas accent – otherwise, “wars of choice” against third-rate dictators go down smoothly.

But “situational constitutionalism” is the constitutionalism of fools: there’s something absurd–or at least insincere–about people who decide to worry about the Imperial Presidency only every four to eight years, and only when the “other team” holds the office.

Blame power-hungry presidents and feckless Congresses all you want.  We’ll never solve the problem of the Imperial Presidency until more Americans manage to pry their eyes away from the Red-Team/Blue Team sideshow and recognize that who holds the office is less important than the powers the office holds.

Tuesday Links

  • “Vouchers and tax credits differ from one another in important ways, and Pennsylvanians deserve to have their representatives consider them one at a time.”
  • “So, if the Supreme Court’s precedents defer to Congress’ assessments of its powers, but Congress is relying for ‘constitutional authority’ on the Supreme Court’s precedents, then NO ONE is actually looking at the Constitution itself to see if a bill is within Congress’ enumerated powers.”
  • “Carbon dioxide, thought to be a significant cause of the warming of surface temperature since the mid-1970s, is currently the respiration of the world’s economic civilization. Getting rid of it isn’t as simple as banning CFCs and switching to another refrigerant.”
  • “As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. explained in his book of that name, the presidency’s transformation from limited, constitutional office to Supreme Warlord of the Earth has been ‘as much a matter of congressional abdication as of presidential usurpation.’”
  • It’s the expenditures, stupid:

Congress: The Least Dangerous Branch

That’s the topic of my Washington Examiner column this week. In it, I discuss last week’s budget battle and the failure of “policy riders” designed to rein in the Obama EPA’s attempts to regulate greenhouse gases without a congressional vote specifically authorizing it. The Obama team believes it has the authority to implement comprehensive climate change regulation, Congress be damned. Worse still, under current constitutional law–which has little to do with the actual Constitution–they’re probably right. Thanks to overbroad congressional delegation, “the Imperial Presidency Comes in Green, Too.” At home and abroad, the legislative branch sits on the sidelines as the executive state makes the law and wages war, despite the fact that “all legislative powers” the Constitution grants are vested in Congress, among them the power “to declare War.”

Yet, as I point out in the column, Congress retains every power the Constitution gave it–powers broad enough that talk of “co-equal branches” is a misnomer. Excerpt:

The constitutional scholar Charles Black once commented, “My classes think I am trying to be funny when I say that, by simple majorities,” Congress could shrink the White House staff to one secretary, and that, with a two-thirds vote, “Congress could put the White House up at auction.” (I sometimes find myself wishing they would.)

But Professor Black wasn’t trying to be funny: it’s in Congress’s power to do that. And if Congress can sell the White House, surely it can defund an illegal war and rein in a runaway bureaucracy.

If they don’t, it’s because they like the current system. And why wouldn’t they? It lets them take credit for passing high-minded, vaguely worded statutes, and take it again by railing against the bureaucracy when it imposes costs in the course of deciding what those statutes mean.

Last year, in the journal White House Studies [.pdf], I explored some of the reasons we’ve drifted so far from the original design:

Federalist 51 envisions a constitutional balance of power reinforced by the connection
between “the interests of the man and the constitutional rights of the place.” Yet, as NYU‘s Daryl Levinson notes, ―beyond the vague suggestion of a psychological identification between official and institution, Madison failed to offer any mechanism by which this connection would take hold…. for most members, the psychological identification with party appears greatly to outweigh loyalty to the institution. Levinson notes that when one party holds both branches, presidential vetoes greatly decrease, and delegation skyrockets. Under unified government, “the shared policy goals of, or common sources of political reward for, officials in the legislative and executive branches create cross-cutting, cooperative political dynamics rather than conflictual ones.”

Individual presidents have every reason to protect and expand their power; but individual senators and representatives lack similar incentive to defend Congress’s constitutional prerogatives. “Congress” is an abstraction. Congressmen are not, and their most basic interest is getting reelected. Ceding power can be a means toward that end: it allows members to have their cake and eat it too. They can let the president launch a war, reserving the right to criticize him if things go badly. And they can take credit for passing high-minded, vaguely worded statutes, and take it again by railing against the executive-branch bureaucracy when it imposes costs in the course of deciding what those statutes mean.

In David Schoenbrod’s metaphor, modern American governance is a “shell game,” with We the People as the rubes.  That game will go on unless and until the voters start holding Congress accountable for dodging responsibility.