Donald Trump

If You're Freaking Out Over Donald Trump's Presidential Powers, Thank a Liberal!

Where were Democrats when Obama was going power-mad? Egging him on, mostly.


The Daily Beast

Last night at the Golden Globes, the actress Meryl Streep spoke for Hollywood when she denounced President-elect Donald Trump as a bad hombre. As Jacob Sullum notes, she and Entertainment World glitterati are not convincing spokespeople for underdogs, but she wasn't wrong when she said:

Disrespect invites disrespect; violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.

One of the things that Streep, who spoke at the Democratic National Convention last summer in support of Hillary Clinton, didn't address, though, is the way in which Barack Obama has handed Trump vast powers as president. There's no question that Obama worked overtime to arrogate more power to the presidency over the past eight years, using all sorts of unilateral action to get shit done. Even Yellow Dog Democrats will grant as much when it comes to civil liberties abuses (remember Bam's "secret kill list"?) and waging war (still waiting on his request to Congress under the War Powers Act to sanction Libya, which turned out so well). Obama was on the losing end of a 9-0 Supreme Court ruling about abusing recess-appointment powers and his moves on immigration law suffered a similar fate as well. In all sorts of ways, the plain fact is that, like George W. Bush before, Obama was ready to grab as much power as he could. And whatever presidential precedents he established will now be sitting in Oval Office, waiting for the arrival of Donald Trump. That's a disturbing reality, I argue in a new Daily Beast column, and one to which I say:

Thanks a lot, liberals. It's all well and good that Joe Biden is now lecturing us that "the worst sin of all is the abuse of power," but where the hell was he—and where were you—for the past eight years, when the president was starting wars without Congressional authorization, passing major legislation with zero votes from the opposing party, and ruling almost exclusively through executive orders and actions?

Mostly exhorting Obama to act "unilaterally" and "without Congress" on terrorism, immigration, guns, and whatever because you couldn't dream of a day when an unrestrained billionaire reality-TV celebrity would wield those same powers toward very different ends. Hell, in the early months of Obama's presidency, The New York Times's Thomas Friedman held up China's "one-party autocracy" as the model to emulate.

I'm already getting an earful from Obama supporters who claim their guy had no choice, given the stated opposition of Republicans to all that is good and decent. In fact, I anticipated that argument:

But, but, but…, I can hear you saying, …the Republicans pledged from the outset that their main priority was to make Obama "a one-term president," as Mitch McConnell said in 2010. "Waiting for the Republicans to act on immigration is pointless!" right? Or on guns, overtime pay, air and water regulations, or anything else. He had to act unilaterally.

That may all be true, but it doesn't change the fact that Obama Rex presents the worst-possible presidential precedent for his successor, a man who enters office with seemingly no ability to check his own ego, limits, and tweets.


People are quick to forget that when Obama won election, he had large congressional majorities too and got everything he asked for during his first two years. Besides tripling troop strength in Afghanistan, expanding and extending TARP bailouts, passing a stimulus plan, and shoving Obamacare through, all that netted was a Repbublican Congress in the 2010 midterms. Suddenly, the guy who was fond of saying "elections have consequences" was singing a different tune, one about having "a pen and a phone" and how he wasn't just "going to be waiting around for legislation." And he didn't.

I hope that liberals and Democrats more generally don't simply treat the rise of Donald Trump as a partisan issue. Fact is that all the major ideologies in America—libertarian, conservative, and liberal—do believe in limited government. While we might disagree over the specifics, none of us wants a government that can do whatever it wants if the majority says so. But when the GOP is in power, they get power-mad and the same goes for the Democrats. It's time to actually forge a consensus that is bigger than party affiliation. If liberals are willing to join in, they'll find some conservative and libertarian Republican allies in Congress who they can work with. I end the Beast column with a summary of Sen. Mike Lee's "Article I Project," which seeks to pull power back to Congress as the institution that is supposed to pass laws and budgets (neither of which it's bothered to do very much in a long time).

In Our Lost Constitution: The Willful Subversion of America's Founding Dcoument, Utah's Lee makes exactly that case. "A government," Lee told me in an interview last year, "that is big enough and powerful enough to spy on you, to lie to you, to target you, is a government that we ought not have in the first place."

That's more than enough common ground to start a real conversation about whittling the imperial presidency down to size once and for all, and not just for the next four or eight years.

Read Reason's latest print issue for a whole cache of stories about the Obama legacy.

Last Friday, I spoke with Glenn Greenwald of The Intercept about how Obama expanded presidential powers when it comes not just to curtailling civil liberties but economic freedom too. It's a sharp discussion, especially Greenwald's points about how crony capitalism cuts deeply across both Democrats and Republicans.

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