The Imperial Presidency: Obama and the Legacy of Bush

Barack Obama rose to power in 2008 preaching ‘hope’ and ‘change’. He said in his campaign that the biggest problem facing the US was ‘George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch’. But, as he nears the end of his second term in office, has he delivered on his promise to backtrack from the ‘reborn imperial presidency’ of Bush?

Well, not exactly. Jack Balkin, a constitutional law professor at Yale, said in 2008 that Bush’s successor would be ‘the most powerful President who has ever sat in the White House.’ Seven years on, and his prediction remains true. It was perhaps youthful, inexperienced naivety, following only three years in Congress before his presidential campaign, which led Obama to promise a reduction in executive power. History shows us that it is only Congress who occasionally abdicates power. Take the Authorisation for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), for example, passed only three days after the 9/11 attacks. Congress, craving revenge like Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo, gave Bush Jr unchecked power to use military force wherever he deemed it was necessary to fight terrorism. Obama, despite his apparent ideological opposition to the expansion of executive authority, has often employed AUMF to pursue military action without congressional approval, most notably in air strikes on both Libya and Syria.

Bush pushed presidential power to its limits over foreign policy and his beloved ‘homeland security’. That is fact, uncontestable even by a staunch authoritarian. Obama, though, has used his enumerated powers to push through his domestic agenda too. Immigration reforms, temporary gun controls, climate protection and minimum wage changes have all been introduced through executive actions. This all leads to a single question, one which I suspect will make the President’s media team choke on their Cheerios as they read this over breakfast: is Obama more imperious than Bush?

Not as such. In answering this particular question, the facts are quite telling. Whilst he may have tackled key policy areas using executive orders, his overall use of this basic presidential capability has been remarkably low. At a rate of 0.09 orders per day in office, Obama is issuing orders at the slowest rate since Grover Cleveland. Similarly, he has only used five vetoes during his time in office, lower than any President since the 1850s (excluding James A. Garfield, who only served for sixth months).

Obama’s limited use of his constitutional powers is greatly surprising. Congress, dogged by wars between the two parties and also within the Republican party itself, has reached the stage of opposing anything that the President puts forward, going so far as to shutdown the government for sixteen days in October 2013. Obama’s legislative agenda has stalled since he lost the House in 2011, even more so following the 2014 midterm elections in which the Democrats lost the Senate. Many would therefore have forgiven him for using his powers to dominate the dysfunctional Congress, yet he seems reluctant to do so, even asking its permission this year to extend military action against ISIS. Given this evidence, it is hard to argue that Obama is more ‘imperial’ than Bush (although I expect the Republicans would try their hardest…).

Arthur Schlesinger Jr coined the term ‘imperial presidency’ in 1973, having experienced the presidencies of FDR, Nixon and everything in between. This was the period of the true ‘imperial presidency’, founded by Roosevelt following the Great Depression. FDR, through his ‘New Deal’, oversaw the greatest expansion of national government in history, and the Supreme Court, in the historic case NLRB vs Jones Laughlin Steel Corporation, gave way. This trend continued for decades, with the Court interpreting the powers of the federal government more and more broadly. Comparatively, the Supreme Court has been much more active in recent years in its restriction of presidential power. Both Bush and Obama have suffered numerous defeats by the Court, Bush notably over his treatment of Guantanamo inmates and Obama over 2011 recess appointments and immigration executive orders.

Following the events of September 11, 2001, Bush Jr faced a unique challenge as President. His response led critics, even Schlesinger himself, to label him as ‘imperial’. However, this criticism may overlook the simple idea that Bush’s actions, whilst perhaps a little excessive in their expansion of executive power, were ultimately for the good of American citizens. Obama, in some respects, has continued in the same vein as Bush, using his position when necessary to implement important domestic reforms in the face of congressional deadlock. Perhaps then, an imperfect but altogether more appropriate phrase to describe the Bush and Obama administrations would be: ‘pragmatic presidency’.

An A-Level project on presidential power, written December 2015.

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