Executive Power

Are We About to See What Obama Can Do When He Doesn't Give a Damn?

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Obama
White House

Ah, to be unencumbered by worries or responsibilities. It's that feeling of open horizons known by twenty-somethings with an apartment and a first paycheck, by healthy retirees with topped-off 401Ks—and by second-term presidents who have stopped giving a shit about their own political party's prospects. In an era of expanding executive power, President Obama looks like a guy contemplating a world of interesting possibilities. Even his fellow Democrats seem a bit jittery about just what the man in the Oval Office has in mind.

Timothy Cama at The Hill writes, "President Obama's election-year plan to win a new international climate change accord is making vulnerable Democrats nervous."

So why don't they just tell the president that any such deal is DOA in the Senate? At least until after the election?

Because Coral Davenport at the New York Times suggests that Obama plans to bypass Congress entirely.

[U]nder the Constitution, a president may enter into a legally binding treaty only if it is approved by a two-thirds majority of the Senate.

To sidestep that requirement, President Obama's climate negotiators are devising what they call a "politically binding" deal that would "name and shame" countries into cutting their emissions. The deal is likely to face strong objections from Republicans on Capitol Hill and from poor countries around the world, but negotiators say it may be the only realistic path…

American negotiators are instead homing in on a hybrid agreement — a proposal to blend legally binding conditions from an existing 1992 treaty with new voluntary pledges. The mix would create a deal that would update the treaty, and thus, negotiators say, not require a new vote of ratification.

By…umm…creatively building off an existing treaty, the president could unilaterally reach for the green-garbed legacy he covets. He would also confirm the fears of everybody who worries about executive overreach and probably torpedo the chances of at least a few Democrats in battleground states where the economic impact of such a deal would be an issue.

The proposal risks putting donkey party candidates in close races "in front of the firing squad," according to a Democratic strategist quoted by Cama.

But how likely is the unilateral strategy? When asked about such a Senate-bypassing scheme, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest coyly answered, "Because that agreement is not written, it's not yet clear exactly what sort of role Congress would be required to play."

President Obama is likely to follow a similar path on immigration issues. Karen Tumulty and Robert Costa at the Washington Post write:

Both political parties are in a state of high anxiety about the possibility that President Obama will allow millions of illegal immigrants to remain in the country, fearing that White House action on the issue could change the course of November's midterm elections.

In the past few days, Democratic candidates in nearly every closely fought Senate race have criticized the idea of aggressive action by Obama. Some strategists say privately that it would signal that he has written off the Democrats' prospects for retaining control of the chamber, deciding to focus on securing his legacy instead.

The White House isn't even shy on the issue. When asked if Obama might "think twice about taking executive action on immigration," Earnest answered, "No…the President is determined to act where House Republicans won't."

A minority opinion among political strategists is that such a move is actually a clever plan to get GOP nativists foaming at the mouth so they hurt Republican prospects. But as reliably batshit as some Republicans can be on the immigration issue, Democrats are certain to suffer, too, from unilateral action on a controversial issue. And the whole idea of a republic based on limited govement power takes a hit when one person follows the "Stroke of the pen. Law of the Land. Kinda cool" approach to ruling a country by fiat.

Note, too, that the wisdom or lack thereof of a unilateral presidential action is irrelevant to the dangers of growing executive power. I would personally agree with some of the president's ideas on easing immigration restrictions. But the problems of a president set free to do as he damned well wishes, on his own, are problems of concentrated power, no matter how it's used.

And President Obama look like he sees a world of interesting possibilities in using that power.

Below, Frank Buckley discusses the rise of American elective monarchy.