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Barack Obama and the Imperial Presidency

by danps Sat Feb 21st, 2009 at 05:08:54 AM EST

While there have already been several noteworthy changes from the policies of the last president, the current one has shown some uncomfortable similarities to him as well.  Considering George Bush's deep unpopularity when he left office that might not be a model for success.

For more on pruning back executive power see Pruning Shears.

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

Although it is still very early into Barack Obama's presidency it is hard (for me anyway) to avoid frequent comparisons with George Bush.  Since I have, to put it mildly, a low opinion of Bush the rule of thumb is that any break from his policies is a good thing.  Obama has already shown some big differences, from the SCHIP extension (which passed into law with remarkably little fanfare considering how much attention it got last time around) to the announced plan to withdraw from Iraq to the passing of a stimulus bill that would probably have been vetoed by Bush.  There have already been substantive changes, and even though I have been critical of some of Obama's stances I want to be clear that some important breaks with the past have already been made.

There have been similarities, though, some of them more than skin deep.  While something like disciplined campaigning and messaging may be largely superficial (though arguably not), something like scope of ambition is another matter.  Barton Gellman's Angler captures Bush's fondness for large scale projects through the now greatly irritating phrase "game changer," as in (p. 37) "[Donald Rumsfeld] appealed to Bush's fondness for 'transformation,' 'game changers,' big ideas'", or (p. 88) "Bush liked game changers, not small ball" or (p. 265) "Why cut the [capital gains] tax, [Bush] asked, when we can abolish it? That would be a game changer, a declaration of principle."  At this point the public might be just a bit wary (and weary) of a president who declares grand visions.  So when Obama's top economic advisor says "this is not a small-ball President. He wants to take on the large issues," doesn't anyone in the White House realize such sweeping language might conjure up images of inflexible, bullying leaders launching dogma-driven crusades that do not at any point acknowledge reality?  Even assuming perfect good faith - that they truly believe the crisis is as acute as they say, and that their belief is well supported by available evidence - shouldn't someone make sure they don't sound like the previous administration when they speak to the public?

The use of language may be a cosmetic issue, but the budget and the nature of presidential authority are not.  For the first, think about how budgets have changed over the years.  It now seems almost expected that the president will (to use Ronald Brownstein's phrase) unveil the framework of his budget, at which point Congress gets to work on it.  But Congress is responsible for writing and passing the budget.  We do not seem to work that way now, but we used to.  In 1987 the New York Times wrote: "The President's budget is both a political statement and an economic manifesto, and in recent years it has been altered so much by Congress that the final product bears little resemblance to what the President proposed."  The Office of Management and Budget would release a budget and Congressional leaders would declare it dead on arrival.  There was a sense that the president was encroaching on their territory and was not welcome.  To an extent that was an interparty dispute which is obviously not in play now, but even taking that into account it is surprising how much the president now is able to "unveil" his budget as the blueprint for Congress to work from.

(As a side benefit for progressives, stronger pushback from Congress might result in more liberal friendly budgets.  Nancy Pelosi seems noticeably to the left of Obama, who seems to be spending a good deal of time establishing his centrist bona fides.  Budgets originating in the House would presumably look quite different; it seems to be one of those happy situations where good principles are also good politics.)

The most troubling of the early similarities has to be a certain majestic regard for the prerogatives of the executive branch.  John Conyers has subpoenaed Karl Rove for the second time this session for testimony regarding the politicization of the Justice Department.  Instead of letting the situation play itself out White House counsel Gregory B. Craig jumped in, saying "the president is very sympathetic to those who want to find out what happened.  But he is also mindful as president of the United States not to do anything that would undermine or weaken the institution of the presidency. So, for that reason, he is urging both sides of this to settle."  It is impossible to know what is going on behind the scenes, but on the face of it Craig's statement seems to put the interests of the office before criminal investigation.  

An exalted view of the presidency is a key part of what many people disliked about George Bush.  Barack Obama embraces it at his peril.

by danps (dan at pruningshears (dot) us) on Sat Feb 21st, 2009 at 05:09:14 AM EST
Nancy Pelosi seems noticeably to the left of Obama,


- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sat Feb 21st, 2009 at 12:41:13 PM EST

The Fates are kind.
by Gaianne on Sun Feb 22nd, 2009 at 02:13:41 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Just because someone has a lot of power, such as Barrack Obama now has a newly elected US President, doesn't mean he can do anything he wants with it. Power itself provides an extremely limited set of options, and it almost always requires that an actor with power do things in a way that increases or maintains that power, because if he doesn't he will soon lose all of it.  That's central thesis of Machiavelli's "The Prince," and Obama is a student of the renown Chicago organizer Saul Alinsky, who famously declared himself to be the Machiavelli for radicals, drawing most of his organizing theories from "The Prince."  

So expect Obama to treat the Presidency much more like Reagan than Carter, and also expect him to be as vilified for doing so from both the left and the right as was FDR, like you're doing to him right now.  

by santiago on Sat Feb 21st, 2009 at 11:22:32 PM EST
though it is still early on. At least that's what I keep telling myself. Some of his appointments troubled me right off the bat, and I keep reminding myself that they may in fact be decent people trying to do the decent thing this time around. Under Saint Barack's leadership.

Obama has yet to take a stand I can really get behind, Pelosi and Reid continue to play the inside baseball that Congress trusts them to play...and the American Left continue to wait for something good to happen, or to wait for something bad.

There is one of many debates we should be having now: the nature of the Presidency, and just how much real power we wish to invest in the only office with the symbolic power of being elected by the entire nation. Another question is how far the safety net of social programs should extend? Ok, we're for supporting children and old folks, but the poor? Anyone not on the fast track to success in the US? And how do we clear the old Cold Warriors and their increasingly obvious ineptitude out of government? (I'm coming to the conclusion that the "B" Team was never fielded to Afghanistan, it seems more to me like they're the "C" or "D" team, and were it not for the brakes other NATO personnel have placed on the US command, the situation, if it isn't already, would be lost entirely.)

So much. . . . And we're still waiting. I guess it's not his job to make me feel all warm and fuzzy though.

"It Can't Be Just About Us"
--Frank Schnittger, ETian Extraordinaire

by papicek (papi_cek_at_hotmail_dot_com) on Sun Feb 22nd, 2009 at 02:22:00 AM EST

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