Obama's Power Grabs

The "incredible shrinking presidency" just keeps growing.

Editor's Note: This column is reprinted with permission of the Washington Examiner. Click here to read it at that site.

It never fails. Every time a president's popularity tanks, you get a new cycle of media hand-wringing about an enfeebled, "shrunken" presidency.

Politico provided the latest installment in this timeworn genre with its recent cover story on "The Incredible Shrinking President." Noting President Obama's recent political setbacks, the authors declare that "a once-muscular presidency is undergoing a dramatic downsizing in terms of its power, popularity, prestige and ambition."

A "dramatic downsizing"? Hardly. I'll concede their point on popularity and prestige, but this president has never lacked for ambition—and, under Obama, the powers of the office have only grown vaster and more menacing.

Reports of the Imperial Presidency's death are, as always, greatly exaggerated. We've seen this movie before, and by now we ought to know how it turns out.

A little over 10 years ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a column by then-Washington editor Al Hunt with the same title, "The Incredible Shrinking President."

President Bush was "on the defensive," Hunt insisted—increasingly weak and irrelevant. Three days later, Al Qaeda toppled the twin towers, and, in short order, America had embarked on a seemingly permanent war, with permanently enlarged powers for the commander in chief.

But the shrinking-CINC meme somehow refused to die. After Bush's Republicans lost the House and Senate in the 2006 midterms, The Economist led with a story on, yes, "The Incredible Shrinking Presidency." The magazine's cover featured a caricature of a dwarfish Bush, his head peeking above the top of a cowboy boot.

And yet, despite the shift in control, Congress continued to expand the president's power: in surveillance, in foreign policy and in domestic affairs as well. Bush's "last 100 days" looked a little like FDR's first 100, with the president remaking the commanding heights of the economy by executive fiat.

As Yale law professor Jack Balkin observed on the eve of inauguration, "Obama takes office as probably the most powerful president in American history in terms of what he can do and how he can project his power both around the world, in the economy and through the new forms of surveillance power."

It was "precisely the wrong time to worry about an enfeebled presidency," Balkin wrote. "The American Presidency is currently on steroids, and will continue to be for a very long time to come."

And, as before, a Congress held by the nominal "opposition" continues to grow the presidency's powers. Even now, the House Armed Services Committee is considering new legislation allowing the president to expand the terror war beyond al Qaeda and the Taliban, targeting new groups virtually at will.

For his part, Obama has added powers Congress never granted, like a supposed right to assassinate American citizens abroad, far from any battlefield, and launch cruise missiles and drone strikes anywhere in the world without triggering the War Powers Act. If this isn't an Imperial Presidency, it'll do until the real thing comes along.

It's a peculiar office, the presidency. Apparently, it keeps shrinking, but—with an executive branch of some 2.1 million civilian employees and counting—it never gets any smaller.

As the Daily Beast's Reihan Salam put it recently, "The president commands a vast array of bureaucracies devoted to shaping the way we work, travel, eat, exercise, and sleep, and the executive branch is increasingly seen as the guarantor of American prosperity."

Politico argues that "Obama has a power problem." Actually, he has more power than any one man should have. That's a problem for the rest of us.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato 2008). He is a columnist at the Washington Examiner, where this article originally appeared. Click here to read it at that site.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Tony||

    If he does not get the power, then the fascists will.

  • Spencer||

    This is a spoof tony, right? It's got to be... well done, spoof tony, well done.

  • ||

    Too overt. Needs to be way more subtle.

  • spencer||

    I don't think Tony knows subtle.

  • ||

    Surely, you jest!
    Obviously, you wouldn't recognize a "fascist" if one bit you on the ass, or forced you to pay for all the rotten actions of our government!
    May I suggest that you refer to your Funk and Wagnell's, or to another dictionary nearest to the cave in which you dwell, to learn the definition of the word "fascist". Also look up the following words: Conservative, Socialist and Progressive; next, add to each of those words, the term "fascist". The word works well with every political persuasion.
    Obama, in my not-so-humble opinion, would be a Progressive-socialist, Black-Muslim-Brotherhood-Fascist.

  • ||

    What's funny is that I don't think this administration was ever very powerful. Look at the struggles it had even getting the congressional Democrats to play ball on things they all agreed on!

    Frankly, I don't think anyone in politics ever took this administration too seriously. They enjoyed the media frenzy but also knew that the substance wasn't there to support a prolonged reign. From very early on, a get-it-while-the-gettin's-good mentality has ruled.

  • Tman||

    It's been clear since day one of this presidency that Obama is a master campaigner but a completely useless leader and executive.

    He's been dying to get back on the campaign trail since he put the final touches in the West Wing, and it's blatantly obvious right now that there is only one job that he's interested in saving - HIS OWN.

  • creech||

    Sadly, I would have to say there is a 50/50 chance he wins re-election. There are too many, like Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings, who will hold their nose and vote for the guy.

  • ||

    Not with this economy. Not with his obvious incompetence.

  • Lord Humungus||

    I hope you are right, but I expect full-tilt crazy election.

  • ||

    I've got a very 1980 feeling about this election. Enough to even think that Paul is a real possibility.

  • ||

    Ninja, you crazy!

  • prolefeed||

    Not with this economy. Not with his obvious incompetence.

    I beg to disagree. Look at how many times FDR got reelected despite fucking CAUSING the Great Depression to linger on and on ...

    Obama may go down, but I don't think one can presume to know how this next election will turn out with any confidence. It's not like the Rs have anyone who is a slam dunk, especially if Mitt Goddamn Waffling RINO Romney gets the nod.

  • prolefeed||

    Shorter: it is hard to lose an election when the incumbent is running unopposed. Not impossible, but hard.

  • ||

    People didn't blame FDR. They do blame Obama.

  • Kristen||

    Yep - if it's Mitt "ObamaCare Lite" Romney, the Republican Party will be divided and we'll see a handy Obama win. It's almost enough to make me vote Republican for teh first time in my life.

  • prolefeed||

    If you do that, your one vote will NOT be the swing vote in the swing state that tips the election, and you will feel cheap and dirty afterwards.

    Just warning you. Vote for the person you actually want in office, and feel good about it.

  • A Secret Band of Robbers||

    Besides, an Obama administration with a strongly Republican congress and a viable libertarian Tea Party could be the best realistic outcome for freedom.

  • ||

    protefeed? Is that you?

  • Tman||

    It is a truly frightening scenario to imagine how much worse an Obama second term could hurt the economy. Without a campaign to run Obama will be free to show everyone just how horrible of a leader he is full time, Imagine all the bad mistakes he's made in first term and multiply that by the power of ten, thanks to his lame duck status.

  • ||

    Pick a random name from your local online sex offender registry, and that guy will stand a better chance of being elected. At least if the economy stays shitty.

  • ||

    TmanI agree!
    Remember the old saying "those who can't Do, Teach"? I have an Obama variation on that theme: "Those who can't Do, speech about it.....endlessly"

  • Spencer||

    Ok, so that picture on the hit and run link, alt text should be "your president apparently tries too hard to pose like a douch in an Ed Hardy T-shirt."

  • ||

    "Come on and fist me with your best shot! Fire away!"

  • Lord Humungus||

    With the '08 Election, the whole Dem establishment rushed in to gorge the government beast as much as possible.

    I'm cynical, but I'm thinking the Dem strategists knew they would lose big in 2010 - I certainly didn't see much of an attempt to moderate - it was just a big grab-bag of policies that would only grow the scope of government.

    semi-related:
    http://www.nationalreview.com/.....j-d-foster

  • ||

    picture needs more brass knuckles. Come on, he's from Chicago.

  • Doug||

    "The American Presidency is currently on steroids, and will continue to be for a very long time to come."

    Racist!

  • ||

    Explain yourself Sir!
    How is that statement "racist"?
    Could this be another lame attempt at humor?

  • ||

    With the '08 Election, the whole Dem establishment rushed in to gorge the government beast as much as possible.

    Mission accomplished.

    The "one-time emergency" stimulus spending from right after Obama was sworn in is now built into the baseline, somehow.

    2008 - $2,982.5BB (pre-stimulus baseline)
    2009 - $3,517.7 (+$550BB)("one-time"stimulus)
    2010 - $3,456.2 (+$500BB over 2008)
    2011 - $3,818.8 (+$850BB over 2008)

    I kind of figured that was their game, all along. Pretty nifty, bumping the baseline by @ 20% in one go.

  • prolefeed||

    Both major parties want to spend as much of our money as they can steal from us. One party pretends they don't and feigns reluctance, and the two major parties have somewhat different spending priorities, but thinking this new baseline would actually shrink if the Rs controlled Congress and the presidency flies in the face of the hard numbers quantifying what happened last time they held power.

  • Mike M.||

    And the way they did it was by subsequently refusing to pass any new budget since the "one-time stimulus", a strategy which they clearly fully intend to continue for the next fiscal year.

    As constitutionally dubious as Harry Reid's strategy is, it's kind of brilliant in it's own way. They know they can't pass a new budget with more spending increases because it will infuriate every independent in the country, but on the other hand they know they can't pass a budget that truly reduces spending because it will infuriate their deranged base. Ergo, simply refuse to pass a new budget, and voila, the massive spending increase is locked in while they can try to absolve themselves of responsibility for it.

  • Anonymous Coward||

    And yet, despite the shift in control, Congress continued to expand the president's power: in surveillance, in foreign policy and in domestic affairs as well.

    This is the problem. A lazy Congress filled with do-nothings who would rather pass the buck (literally and figuratively) to the President than actually make a decision that could hurt their chances at reelection.

  • ||

    Dear Anonymous Coward;
    Pardon me, but you appear to be no coward at all!
    And, I entirely agree with you!
    Time to sharpen up the rules for, the enforcement of, and the prosecutions of malfeasance,sedition, fraud and treasonous actions of Congress and the Presidency.

  • ||

    Even now, the House Armed Services Committee is considering new legislation allowing the president to expand the terror war beyond al Qaeda and the Taliban, targeting new groups virtually at will.

    Maybe we'll finally get that Alien and Sedition Act we so desperately need.

  • ||

    Oh, I see how this works. First, the Tea Party will be added to the terror list. Then the LP. Finally, the whole shebang ends with the banning of the GOP.

  • Cliché Bandit||

    "Vaster"? Really?

    My mother would scold you and smack you knuckles with a wooden spoon.

  • Federal Dog||

    What's the problem? That's the correct way to form comparatives of one-syllable adjectives.

  • ||

    Yes, Pro Lib, and then America will finally be released from her long and terrible ordeal as hostage to crackpot democracy-haters.

  • ||

    2012: The Year Zero. I so look forward to attending Re-Education Camp.

  • Junior Stalin Chipmunk Club||

    And the WarPig Obama is sending ground troops to Libya according to the headlines.....the occupation of Africa seems to be his next international goal.

  • study in china||

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  • study in china||

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