Commentary

But He’s Our Imperial President!

Part I | Part II | Part III

This is the third part of a three part series on the “Imperial Presidency.”

On Tuesday, we examined the vast powers President Obama wields abroad; on Wednesday, we looked at how he’s turned the Imperial Presidency inward, extending executive control over the private sector. Let’s recap:

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.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the presidency was supposed to be a constitutionally limited office.”

Pretty impressive for a guy who 10 years ago was an unpublished law professor and obscure part-time state senator from Illinois.

But shouldn’t we find that array of unilateral powers worrisome no matter who holds the office?

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the presidency was supposed to be a constitutionally limited office. George Washington didn’t imagine himself “commander in chief of our economy,” in Hillary Clinton’s bizarre formulation; our first president doubted that his powers as CINC even allowed him to attack hostile Indian tribes without congressional authorization.

Nor did Washington refer to himself by his military title, preferring to call the office the “chief magistracy,” a far humbler term.

As historian Bernard Bailyn explains in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, the Founders knew human nature far too well ever to trust one fallible human being with the vast powers presidents claim today.

Given man’s “susceptibility to corruption and his lust for self-aggrandizement,” they considered unchecked power “a malignant force,” Bailyn says.

By 1789, our Constitution’s Framers were convinced that the Republic needed “an effective national executive,” Bailyn writes, but “they continued to believe, as deeply as any of the militants of ‘76, that power corrupts [and] any release of the constraints on the executive — any executive — was an invitation to disaster.”

Today, that healthy skepticism has been eroded by the spirit of faction. Red Team/Blue Team partisanship so clouds our vision that many of us only fear the executive unbound when the scepter and crown pass to the “other team.”

“Republicans, Democrats shift on whether government is a threat,” Gallup reported in October. During the Bush administration, 57 percent of Democrats thought the federal government threatened American liberty, but only 21 percent of Republicans agreed.

The parties had flipped positions by 2010 — even though Obama’s presidency is every bit as imperial as George W. Bush’s — and then some.

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.

Either you think the assortment of powers outlined here is a problem or you don’t, and both are coherent positions. What’s incoherent and absurd is only worrying about it every four to eight years.

Whatever the outcome of the 2012 horse race, American liberty will remain imperiled by a presidency that has slipped its constitutional bonds. It is past time we got serious about restoring those restraints.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.