Bush’s Gift to Obama: A More Powerful State

Friends of freedom, the Constitution, and limited government have plenty of reasons to deplore the past eight years. But in case you thought we might get some relief now, this Washington Post article from inauguration morning will change your mind. One of the points it makes – as some of us warned during the past few years – is that powers claimed by one president are left in the hands of the next, even though the first president’s supporters might have less confidence in his successor’s integrity and wisdom. So here’s the government that President Bush and the Republicans have turned over to President Obama and the Democrats:

Barack Obama takes office today with a realistic prospect of joining the ranks of history’s most powerful presidents….

Historians, recent White House officials and senior members of the incoming team expressed broad agreement that Obama begins his term in command of an office that is at or near its historic zenith….

The federal government itself is a far more potent instrument, in its breadth and depth of command over national life, than it has ever been before. Largely in response to the threat of terrorism, the Bush years and President Bill Clinton’s two terms saw “an incredible period of state-building that’s unrivaled in American history except by the creation of the national security state in the 1940s and ’50s,” said Jack Balkin, a professor of constitutional law at Yale whose blog, Balkinization, is often cited by members of the Obama team.

By necessity or design, and most often by passive acquiescence, Congress and the courts have let presidents do most of the steering of the new and expanded institutions that govern finance, commerce, communications, travel, energy production and especially intelligence gathering. When there were struggles for dominance among the three branches, most of them ended with lopsided victories for the executive.

The legislative power to declare war and ratify treaties, for example, has been deeply eroded by the practice of presidents to launch military operations on their own and to make major international commitments – such as December’s “status of forces” pact with Iraq – by “executive agreement” rather than by treaty requiring a two-thirds Senate vote. After lengthy controversy over warrantless domestic surveillance in the Bush administration, Congress authorized the program without obtaining any details about what, exactly, is collected and how it is used.

“Really, in the last 80 years we’ve seen a gradual, and at times not gradual, concentration of power in the executive office,” said William P. Marshall, who served as deputy White House counsel under Clinton….

Even in its first iteration, the government’s $700 billion expenditure to shore up U.S. financial systems will rival the roughly $1 trillion a year in “discretionary” federal spending – the portion of the budget, not including interest on loans and mandatory benefits such as Social Security, that is negotiated each year between the White House and Congress. Obama, who told The Post last week that he must “go big” in response to “the biggest emergency since World War II,” has spoken elliptically of the prospect that the cost could double.

Congress, the principal power of which is thought to be control of the national purse, has made little pretense of managing these vast expenditures. It will fall to Obama and his subordinates to decide winners and losers in the banking, financial services, automobile and other major industries, a span of control that dwarfs President Harry S. Truman’s attempt to seize control of steel production.

We don’t know yet whether President Obama will prove to be FDR or Jimmy Carter. But it’s clear that the freedom movement faces challenges that aren’t going away.