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Barack Obama’s Imperial Presidency

We learned today that, when it comes to the mission in Libya, the Obama Administration doesn’t much care what Congress thinks:

The White House would forge ahead with military action in Libya even if Congress passed a resolution constraining the mission, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a classified briefing to House members Wednesday afternoon.

Clinton was responding to a question from Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) about the administration’s response to any effort by Congress to exercise its war powers, according to a senior Republican lawmaker who attended the briefing.

The answer surprised many in the room because Clinton plainly admitted the administration would ignore any and all attempts by Congress to shackle President Obama’s power as commander in chief to make military and wartime decisions. In doing so, he would follow a long line of Presidents who have ignored the act since its passage, deeming it an unconstitutional encroachment on executive power.

Andrew Sullivan is outraged and wonder if Congress will step up to the plate:

If the Obama administration is refusing even to abide by the War Powers Act, then the Congress really needs to vote to defund their adventurism at least or impeach them if it comes to that. Going to war outside even the War Powers Act qualifies as an impeachable offense, it seems to me.

But we are, it appears, in a particularly decadent moment in the decline of the American republic and its Congress. We are governed by an executive that goes to war in secret and at will, openly contemptuous of the democratic process and even minimal transparency. and when you realize that that executive actually campaigned against this kind of secretive, dictatorial presidency, you realize how this has become systemic, and the anti-democratic rot is deep.

Matthew Yglesias says don’t count on it:

Members of congress will complain about this, but they won’t really do anything about it, nor will next year’s defense appropriation bill (or the one after that or the one after that or …) contain any effort to constrain presidential warmaking power. That’s because members of congress want to be kept in the dark, they want to be able to complain if things go poorly without taking ownership of the situation.

Ygelsias goes on to argue that he doesn’t consider this a bad thing because “the level of uncertainty surrounding these activities is huge.” A good example of the risks that Yglesias talked about can be seen in the manner in which candidates like Hillary Clinton had their vote in favor of the Iraq War used against them in the 2008 elections. Politically, then, I suppose it is smart for a Member of Congress to avoid getting too involved in foreign policy matters because the possibility of being wrong is so much greater. However, that doesn’t make the abdication of responsibility proper. Largely though its own lack of willingness to act over the years, Congress has ceded vast discretion to the President when it comes to committing American military forces to overseas conflicts that don’t directly threaten the national interests of the United States. It’s no surprise, then, that a President like Obama would take advantage of those powers when the opportunity arises.

Congress is not without authority of course, at least on paper. The War Powers Act purports to limit the ability of the President to sent troops into coming without Congressional support. As I noted last week, though, the Act actually give the President a great deal  of discretion while simultaneously placing Congress in a near impossible situation:As summarized by Wikipedia, the Act “requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30 day withdrawal period, without an authorization of the use of military force or a declaration of war.” The advantages to the President here seem obvious. As long as he notifies Congress, the President has the legal authority to engage in virtually any military action he desires. If that action is still ongoing 90 days later, then Congress is left with the option of cutting off funding to troops in the field after they’ve already been committed — and if a President refused to withdraw troops does anyone really believe that any Court anywhere would require him to do it?

The Obama Administration, of course, is taking the position that they don’t even need to worry about the War Powers Act, which has Ed Morrissey wondering:

Isn’t he required under the War Powers Act to seek congressional authorization after 60 days of hostilities? Or is this guy so intent on waging war whether Congress likes it or not that he’d go to court to try to have the WPA ruled unconstitutional? Normally I’d dismiss that possibility as insane given that he did, after all, run in ’08 on his anti-war cred and that not even a Republican president would dare pull a move like that amid bipartisan clamoring for accountability, but I don’t know that anything can be safely ruled out at this point.

The reality, though, is that every President since Richard Nixon has taken the position that the War Powers Act is unconstitutional because is infringes on the President’s powers as Commander in Chief. Obama is merely adopting the position of his predecessors, and while it may seem odd that a President who ran against the Iraq War to be acting like this, it is not at all surprising. Once they have been asserted, Executive Branch privileges are seldom curtailed, and this is but one more example of how Barack Obama has presumed to protect Presidential prerogatives even if that goes against his previously stated principles. Truly, nobody should be surprised.

As for what will happen with regard to Libya, I think that’s pretty easy to figure out. Congress will do nothing. With American forces committed abroad, and the increasing possibility that ground troops may be necessary at some point, no Congress is going to step in and tel the President he can’t do this, no matter how much they believe that to be the case.

There is much to complain about in the fact that President Obama has continued the tradition of the Imperial Presidency that started to take root under Woodrow Wilson, but the reality is that none of this happened for nefarious reasons, it happened because Congress and the American people let it happen. If we’re ever going to bring things back to the way they are supposed to be, we’re going to have to follow the advice that Gene Healy laid out in his excellent book n The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power:

“Perhaps, with wisdom born of experience, we can come once again to value a government that promises less, but delivers far more of what it promises. Perhaps we can learn to look elsewhere for heroes. But if we must look to the Presidency for heroism, we ought to learn once again to appreciate a quieter sort of valor. True political heroism rarely pounds its chest or pounds the pulpit, preaching rainbows and uplift, and promising to redeem the world through military force. A truly heroic president is one who appreciates the virtues of restraint — who is bold enough to act when action is necessary yet wise enough, humble enough to refuse powers he ought not have. That is the sort of presidency we need, now more than ever.

And we won’t get that kind of presidency until we demand it.”

Indeed,

 

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    I think Mr. Obama’s reign is marked by a desire to take a safe center-ish path, probably with an eye by this point on being a successful ex-president. Good work, if you can get it.

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  2. michael reynolds says:

    It’s no surprise, then, that a President like Obama would take advantage of those powers when the opportunity arises.

    Have we moved on from “weak and dithering” to “power-mad beast?”

    I’m really trying to keep up, but the changes occur with such lightning speed. What’s coming up next? Are we going back to “naive and unready?” Or are we going to go with, “French UK lapdog again?”

    I need a map of some sort. I mean, I understand that whatever happens the answer is always, “Obama=bad,” but I like to keep up on the details.

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  3. Tsar Nicholas says:

    When you’re presiding over a disasterous housing market, combined with a weak job market, and where gas prices are heading for inflation-adjusted high points in your country’s history, not to mention your party was eviscerated at the polls only five months ago, you need to do what you can to distract Joe the Zombie Voter from what ails him and his family. If that means dropping some bombs and firing off missiles, hell, it’s better than morphing into Jimmy Carter.

    Putting that aside, if I held the title of Commander in Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, as every president has and always will, I too would take the position that I have unfettered discretion when it comes to military matters, short of actually declaring war or funding the military, of course, which obviously is the domain of the Congress. So, I have to agree with the teleprompter and his people on that particular stance.

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  4. Fog says:

    C’mon, Michael, be fair and balanced. I’m 100% sure Doug will do a post tomorrow on how the support for the new Tea Party Governors is cratering already…

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  5. anjin-san says:

    > Have we moved on from “weak and dithering” to “power-mad beast?”

    It can change by the hour. One moment, Obama is a toothless, ineffectual empty suit. Carter 2.0. Hillary and France are leading him around by the nose. In so far over his head he would need to stand on top of the Empire State building just to break the surface.

    The next he is single handedly remaking America into a neo-European, socialist swamp that none of us will even be able to recognize in a few years. You would think he has Godlike power to be able to so drastically remold a huge county like ours and shape it to suit his whims.

    So which Obama is the real Obama? Well, neither, it is pretty much just the right wing noise machine making more crap up to feed to the rubes, depending on the needs of the moment. Guess it’s good work if you can get it.

    As the saying goes “Fox tweets it, Doug repeats it”.

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  6. anjin-san says:

    Well Nicholas, you are right about one thing. The multiple disasters Obama inherited from his predecessor present a daunting challenge.

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  7. Wayne says:

    Re “Have we moved on from “weak and dithering” to “power-mad beast?”

    No he is both. He snatches up as much power as he can then often he can’t decide what to do with it. He will use and abused against the GOP, energy companies or U.S. citizens like the tea party but is hesitant against foreign entities. He will start off strong at times then decides he is not all that sure if what he is doing is right so he will let it wither on the vine.

    I not sure what is worst. Someone who is power hungry then gets it and knows how to use it or someone starts get it and do know what to do with it so he just starts blasting away.

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  8. george says:

    He’s acting like just about every leader in every country, both good and bad – taking on what power he can to further his cause. Same thing happens in business, where people try to expand their personal influence. Its to be expected – the kind of person who can become the leader of a nation almost always has the belief that they can make things better if they can just take control. Sometimes its even true, though in practice rarely – and powers once obtained for an office stick around for the next leader.

    Basically, the push back is supposed to come from Congress.

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  9. michael reynolds says:

    I think we need to go a whole new direction with Obama=Bad. The GOP tries to swap the same half dozen contradictory storylines around and then pretend they’ve got new material. Well, I’m not falling for it.

    So, as a professional fiction writer, I’m stepping in. Here are some brand-new attacks on Obama that I invite my GOP friends to consider:

    1) He’s like Dexter, a charming serial killer.
    2) Uses Jedi mind tricks to cheat at basketball.
    3) Secretly Hindu.
    4) Has caught, boiled, and eaten missionaries.
    5) Facebook friends with Osama Bin Laden
    6) Secretly Zoroastrian
    7) Often lets Michele be on top.
    8) Refuses to eat white Tic Tacs. Only white Tic Tacs.
    9) Actually quite fat but hides it with man-girdle.
    10) Secretly worships Huitzilopoctli and feeds him the hearts of NASCAR fans

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  10. mantis says:

    When you’re presiding over a disasterous housing market, combined with a weak job market, and where gas prices are heading for inflation-adjusted high points in your country’s history,

    Thanks to Republicans.

    not to mention your party was eviscerated at the polls only five months ago

    You mean the party that still holds the White House and a majority in the Senate?,

    you need to do what you can to distract Joe the Zombie Voter from what ails him and his family.

    Not really. That’s what the Tea Party is for.

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  11. JKB says:

    Well, Obama is acting illegally as he has not sought to legalize the war

    To legalize a war it must be declared by that branch of the government entrusted by the Constitution with this power. And it seems it need not be declared by both the belligerent powers. By the Constitution of the United States, Art. I, Congress is invested with power “to declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water; and they have also the power to raise and support armies, and to provide and maintain a navy.” Bouvier’s Law dictionary

    and it is a war as defined in US code:

    (4) the term “act of war” means any act occurring in the course of—
    (A) declared war;
    (B) armed conflict, whether or not war has been declared, between two or more nations; or
    (C) armed conflict between military forces of any origin; and

    Not to mention, the increasing efforts that exceed what cover given by the UN mandate. So while his difficulties in the US may only be political, if this goes against him, he would be open to prosecution in the International Criminal Court should he travel to a jurisdiction wanting prosecution. Of course, the UN Security Counsel could ratify the exceeding of the UN resolution but there are two members who are not party to the aggression, who abstained but might not when Obama needs their blessing.

    Sure these are old and archaic concepts that seem to be argued don’t apply to a national leader who is a Lefty favorite but you things can change.

    But in reality, all this reveals is that the theory has arisen that the President of the United States can initiate and conduct expeditionary armed aggression of no immediate national security purpose without seeking to have such adventures legalized as outlined in the Constitution or with the counsel of the American People or their Elected Representatives. And that the UN will permit expeditionary aggression by member states against other member states to interfere with internal matters even to the point said aggressors exceed their UN mandate, i.e., the UN is useless, dangerous and should be disbanded.

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  12. Wiley Stoner says:

    So Mantis joins Anjin in the lie Obama inherited these problems from Bush. If Chuckj Schumer had not hollered fire, the bank,which actually was in trouble, would not have been run on, which started the whole mess unless you want to go back to the community reinvestment act, which forcded banks to loan money to people who could not pay it back. If we dig deep enough, we find Obama and ACORN. I want to ask both Mantis and Anjin. Just when does responsiblity for what happens during his administration does Obama become responsible? Is he responsible for issuing the permit which allowed BP to drill in the Gulf? Is he responsible for the wasted stimulus money? Is he responsble for a budget which calls for borrowing 40 cents on the dollar? When is this affirmative action president going to stop blaming George W. Bush and take responsiblity for what he, Obama has done? I think we should impeach the bum but then I do call him Barack Insane Obama.

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  13. mantis says:

    If Chuckj Schumer had not hollered fire, the bank,which actually was in trouble, would not have been run on, which started the whole mess unless you want to go back to the community reinvestment act, which forcded banks to loan money to people who could not pay it back. If we dig deep enough, we find Obama and ACORN.

    Wow, that’s a lot of debunked myths and conspiracy theory, there, crazytown.

    I want to ask both Mantis and Anjin. Just when does responsiblity for what happens during his administration does Obama become responsible?

    When the things that happen are a result of his actions. There’s a lot of that already, but it’s a fact that Bush handed him the recession, skyrocketing debt, growing unemployment, and two wars on his way out the door.

    When is this affirmative action president

    Thanks for showing your true (white) colors, Whitey Stoner. GFY

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  14. AllenS says:

    What? obama inherited the Libyan situation from Bush?

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  15. Ben Wolf says:

    The administration’s claim that it can pursue matters of foreign policy and armed conflict without consent of the Congress is outrageous. The action in Libya, whether you agree with it or not, whether the outcome will be good or bad, is illegal. The president does not have the authority to commit this country to military intervention whenever he feels like it, nor is he empowered to solely determine national interests and strategic objectives.

    Congress should be stepping up to reign in an executive gone rogue, but as they didn’t bother to during the last administration I won’t hold my breath.

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  16. ponce says:

    “The action in Libya, whether you agree with it or not, whether the outcome will be good or bad, is illegal. ”

    Many fringe right brains have exploded over this.

    Maybe he attacked Libya just to push the tottering Republicans off the cliff.

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  17. anjin-san says:

    Wiley – I would respond to you, but a conversation with the homeless guy I drive by on the way to work that screams at everyone would probably be more rewarding.

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  18. […] Barack Obama’s Imperial Presidency (outsidethebeltway.com) […]

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  19. […] Barack Obama’s Imperial Presidency (outsidethebeltway.com) […]

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  20. I’ve quoted you and linked to you here: http://consul-at-arms2.blogspot.com/2011/04/re-barack-obamas-imperial-presidency.html

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