Andrew Rosenthal: Obama Is Better Than Bush Because His Abuses of Executive Power Are Necessary


Andrew Rosenthal, editorial page editor at The New York Times, notes that "President George W. Bush used his executive power to bypass Congress, almost as a matter of routine," and "now President Barack Obama is pulling a similar stunt." But while "I was appalled" by Bush's abuses of executive power, Rosenthal says, "I am not appalled" by Obama's. Why? Because Bush is a Republican, and Obama is a Democrat? Because Obama's policy agenda is more to Rosenthal's liking than Bush's? No, no, no. It's because Bush abused his power gratuitously, while Obama does so only out of necessity:

Mr. Bush's signing statements not only amounted to a significant usurpation of power, but they came at a time when Congress was giving him everything he wanted. Congress passed the deeply flawed Patriot Act and authorized the invasion of Iraq. It even gave its retroactive approval to warrantless wiretapping. Mr. Bush also achieved many of his domestic policy goals, including tax breaks that mostly benefited the richest Americans.

The contrast with the Obama administration is stark.

For nearly three years, President Obama devoted a great deal of effort to finding compromises with Congressional Republicans. That was futile, in my view, since those Republicans had made it clear from the day he was inaugurated in 2009 that their plan was to oppose everything he wanted, and then paint him as a failed president. (Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, said his party's "number one goal" was to keep the president from winning a second term.)

Mr. Obama got fed up, finally, last fall,…and the result was the "We Can't Wait" project, which has led to dozens of executive actions on a range of issues, including jobs for veterans and fuel economy standards.

Possibly relevant: As a senator, Obama supported giving "retroactive approval to warrantless wiretapping," along with retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that broke the law to facilitate warrantless wiretapping. As president, he not only has demanded reauthorization of "the deeply flawed PATRIOT Act" but has used a secret interpretation of the law to justify a form of surveillance that we are not allowed to know about but that (according to two Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee) would shock us if we did.

In any case, Rosenthal thinks Obama deserves credit because he is happy to work with Congress as long as Congress does what he wants, resorting to extraconstitutional means only when they are necessary to accomplish his goals. Seriously? As I said in 2008 regarding Bush's illegal use of money from the Troubled Asset Relief Program to bail out automakers (an initiative that Obama enthusiastically continued and enlarged):

This is the argument of every strongman, dictator, and president-for-life who has ever overriden uncooperative legislators: They won't let me do what I want to do, and this is an emergency, so I'm going to do it anyway.

Obama, who as a presidential candidate criticized Bush's unilateralism and promised to respect constitutional limits on executive power, has been at least as bad as his predecessor on that score and in some ways worse. While Bush secretly contemplated the assassination of suspected terrorists, Obama has boldly asserted his authority to summarily execute anyone he deems an enemy of the state and has actually begun to do so. While Bush sought congressional approval for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama observed no such niceties before launching his illegal war against Libya, pushing an absurd interpretation of the War Powers Act to explain why he did not need anyone's permission. And contrary to Rosenthal's theory that Obama started bypassing Congress last fall because those mean Republicans were so darn uncooperative, both of these abuses (along with many more, ranging from extorting oil-spill reparations to blocking lawsuits by torture victims) occurred well before the president supposedly abandoned his hopes of bipartisanship.