Barack Obama, Imperial President

Both at home and abroad, Obama is setting a dismal new standard in executive overreach.


The Obama administration has all but declared war against what are, in its view, a bunch of dangerous religious zealots who threaten Americans' most cherished fundamental rights. But enough about Hobby Lobby. The president is also ramping up a campaign against ISIS, the Islamist fanatics who butcher un-believers and cut off the heads of Western journalists. The American left, which was bitterly disappointed when the Supreme Court would not let the administration stamp out the Hobby Lobby menace, isn't so sure about this latest venture.

Many liberals question the president's authority to wage war unilaterally. They're not buying the administration's laughable legal rationales, which are based on the 2001 and 2002 authorizations of force in Afghanistan and Iraq. They insist, quite correctly, that the president ask Congress for explicit permission to go after ISIS. The New York Times went so far as to play a very mean trick on the president, by quoting him accurately: "In May 2013, Mr. Obama argued in a speech that the 2001 law … to wage war against al-Qaida had become obsolete and ought to be repealed. 'Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don't need to fight, or continue to grant presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states,' Mr. Obama said."

It's nice to see liberals re-discover the concept of limited presidential authority, which they apparently mislaid six years ago. Up to now, when conservatives griped about the president's use of executive orders, presidential signing statements, bureaucratic edicts and similar decrees, liberals responded by telling them, as The New Republic did back in February, "The Presidency Comes With Executive Power. Deal With It." (A slightly different take from this one from 2006: "Bush's Leviathan State.") Some have been practically begging him to rewrite immigration policy by executive fiat.

Conservatives, of course, are supposed to be the ones motivated by reverence for authority. Social scientists have produced a fair amount of research to back up that supposition, and casual observation supports it as well: The only voices defending the police in Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was killed were conservative, for example. You probably won't see many "Question Authority" bumper stickers at a GOP convention, either.

But Jeremy Frimer, a professor of psychology who used to believe "Bible-thumping social conservatives were like obedient robots," has recently published some research indicating—to his own surprise—that liberals can be just as authoritarian as conservatives. It all depends on who the authority is. If the authority is viewed as conservative, conservatives are more prone to favor obedience and liberals less so. If the authority is ideologically neutral (such as an office manager), there is no real difference. And if the authority is liberal—should you obey an environmentalist?—then liberals become the authoritarians and conservatives become the rebels.

Perhaps conservatives tend to be more intrinsically authoritarian—"God says it, I believe it, that settles it"—while liberals tend to be more instrumentally authoritarian: Government should have as much power and obedience as it needs, so long as the right people are in charge and doing the right thing.

That might help explain the weird China envy that seems to be spreading like a virus among the op-ed writers of The New York Times. Take Thomas Friedman, aka Patient Zero, who has repeatedly wished America "could just be China for a day. … You know, I mean, where we could actually, you know, authorize the right solutions," and who has said that while one-party autocracy "certainly has its drawbacks. … when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages."

Friedman seems to have infected his colleague, Mark Bittman. "Say what you will about the Chinese," Bittman wrote earlier this month, "but they know how to make wholesale changes." This was in a column about, of all things, obesity—the Chinese are eating too much, as Bittman sees it—in which he noted the sharp rise of Chinese life expectancy during the past half-century. He didn't note that half a century ago, 20 million to 40 million Chinese people starved to death during the government's Great Leap Forward. Wholesale changes, indeed.

A strain of this thinking might even have spread to The Washington Post. "Alas," the newspaper lamented the other day in an editorial about Medicaid expansion, "Virginia's constitution, which requires the legislature to sign off on all appropriations … affords the governor little authority to act on his own."

Just think what the governor could accomplish if only he could write the laws, too.

Yet these days nobody seems more enamored of executives acting on their own than the nation's chief executive. To the left's mild dismay, President Obama has embraced executive powers—domestic eavesdropping, unilateral military action—he used to denounce. He also has championed the greatest expansion of government power in a generation, the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate—and would have used that law to severely attenuate religious freedom, if he and his supporters had had their way.

Now he is escalating a war on ISIS without consulting Congress, and liberals are alarmed. The alarm is entirely appropriate—but also a bit late. The time to oppose the expansion of executive authority is when it's being used for causes you otherwise support—because you can't take it back later, when it's used for causes you don't.

"We've paid a heavy price for having a president whose priority is expanding his own power," said Obama back in 2007. Yup.