How Obama Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Imperial Presidency

A critic of the imperial presidency becomes an imperial president.


Ross Douthat reflects on Barack Obama’s transition from a critic of the imperial presidency to an imperial president.

LET me be clear, as he likes to say: I believe that President Obama was entirely sincere when he ran for president as a fierce critic of the imperial executive. I believe that he was in earnest when he told supporters in 2008 that America’s “biggest problems” involved “George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all.” I believe he meant it when he cast himself as a principled civil libertarian, when he pledged to defer to Congress on war powers, when he promised to abjure privileges Bush had claimed.

I also believe he was sincere when he told audiences, again and again across his presidency, that a sweeping unilateral move like the one just made on immigration would betray the norms of constitutional government.

So how did we get from there to here? How did the man who was supposed to tame the imperial presidency become, in certain ways, more imperial than his predecessor?

The short answer, of course, is that he became president. In addition to the world simply looking different when you’re its ostensible leader, the temptations of pushing the envelope to do things you genuinely believe good for the country are immense. And so he did.

The scope of Obama’s moves can be debated, but that basic imperial reality is clear. Even as he has maintained much of the Bush-era national security architecture, this president has been more willing to launch military operations without congressional approval; more willing to trade in assassination and deal death even to American citizens; and more aggressive in his war on leakers, whistle-blowers and journalists.

At the same time, he has been much more aggressive than Bush in his use of executive power to pursue major domestic policy goals — on education, climate change, health care and now most sweepingly on immigration.

During this week’s debate on the executive order to circumvent an obstreperous Congress on immigration reform, some dismissive defenders noted that many of Obama’s critics cheered his predecessor’s circumventions of the law on torture and domestic surveillance. While I was not among their number on either count, the difference is that presidents have long taken liberties on war powers and national security policy—areas where the executive is naturally dominant. Domestic policy is different, since that’s Congress’ bailiwick.  Douthat’s explanation is nuanced and reasonable:

First, public expectations. Across the last century, the presidency’s powers have increased in a symbiosis with changing public expectations about the office. Because Congress is unsexy, frustrating and hard to follow, mass democracy seems to demand a single iconic figure into whom desires and aspirations and hatreds can be poured. And so the modern president, the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy has written, is increasingly seen as “a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns and spiritual malaise.”

And pressure on this talisman to act, even in violation of laws or norms or Burkean traditions, is ever increasing and intense. When presidents aren’t seen as “doing something,” they’re castigated as lame ducks; when they take unilateral action, as we’ve seen in the last week of media coverage, they suddenly seem to get their groove back. And that’s something that even a principled critic of executive power can find ever harder to pass up.

This is easily the most defensible of the rationales offered. The pressure to “do something” is indeed immense and the last two decades of Congressional obstructionism—which the current crop of Republicans have taken to a low art form—frustrates that enormously. Relatedly:

Second, congressional abdication. This is the point that liberals raise, and plausibly, in President Obama’s defense: It isn’t just that he’s been dealing with an opposition party that’s swung to the right; it’s that this opposition doesn’t know its own mind, collectively or sometimes even individually, and so has trouble bargaining or legislating effectively.

This reality has made it harder to cut major bipartisan deals; it’s made it harder to solve problems that crop up within existing law; it’s made it harder for the president to count votes on foreign policy. All of which creates more incentives for presidential unilateralism: In some cases, it seems required to keep the wheels turning; in others, it can be justified as the only way to get the Big Things done.

In a sense, that’s an extension of the first. But, as I’ve noted in several pieces this week, one I’m not sympathetic to. Yes, the Republicans have played hard ball to the extreme and that incentivizes the Democrats to do the same. But it doesn’t legitimate flipping the Constitution on its head.

Which bring us to the third factor in the president’s transformation: his own ambitions. While running for president, Obama famously praised Ronald Reagan for changing “the trajectory of America” in a way that Bill Clinton’s triangulation did not. And it’s his self-image as the liberal Reagan, I suspect, that’s made it psychologically impossible for this president to accept the limits that his two predecessors eventually accepted on their own policy-making ability.

That transformative self-image has shaped his presidency from the beginning: Obama never really looked for domestic issues where he might be willing to do a version of something the other party wanted — as Bush did with education spending and Medicare Part D, and Clinton did with welfare reform. (He’s had a self-admiring willingness to incorporate conservative ideas into essentially liberal proposals, but that’s not really the same thing.)

But the liberal Reagan idea has shaped his choices more as it’s become clear that certain major liberal priorities — a big climate-change bill, a comprehensive amnesty — are as out of legislative reach as health care reform proved for Clinton and Social Security reform for Bush. Confronted with those realities, Clinton pivoted and Bush basically gave up. But Obama can’t accept either option, because both seem like betrayals of his promise, his destiny, his image of himself.

The country is simply more polarized than it was during the Reagan years. I was pretty rough during the Clinton and Bush years, too, but in a different way. But Obama was hamstrung from the beginning by both a poisonous political climate and the fiscal crisis. To be sure, Franklin Roosevelt transformed the country as no other president before or sense during the Great Depression. But these are different times, indeed.

Douthat mars a really thoughtful piece just  a bit by too cutesy a close:

And so he has chosen to betray himself in a different way, by becoming the very thing that he once campaigned against: an elected Caesar, a Cheney for liberalism, a president unbound.

Obama has pushed the envelope. He’s hardly “unbound,” however, much less an “elected Caesar.” That Congress refuses to rein him in is to their discredit; but it’s pretty much been the norm for six decades. And I’m not sure what “a Cheney for liberalism” even means, especially in the context of a twice-elected president.

FILED UNDER: Climate Change, Democracy, Terrorism, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Pinky says:

    I’d add two things to this analysis.

    One, he’s never really learned the levers and gears of power in Washington. He wasn’t there long before he became president, and he hasn’t surrounded himself with old masters. He simply doesn’t know the tricks. So he has two modes: standoffish and “imperial”. Two, he kind of wants to be impeached. He’s goaded the Republicans on this several times. He’d love to see the party cement their reputation as mindless obstructionists. Impeachment is the shortest path to Republican self-destruction and he’s more than happy to “draw the foul”.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    What a load of baloney. Douthat is a featherweight George Will wanna-be who has long since run out of anything to say, not that he had much game to begin with. No one has flipped the Constitution on its head. Mr. Obama has not become an imperial anything.

    A president cannot force Congress to do its job, nor can he simply allow Congress to, for example, stop paying this country’s bills in an act of pique. He retains his own responsibility to the country and the Constitution, even when the Republican Congress simply refuses to do its job.

    When my children behave reasonably I’m a very laid-back father. When my kids behave like little a-holes I’m an Imperial Dad. But however they behave, I have my own set of rights and responsibilities. Douthat’s just arguing on behalf of the brats and trying to pin the blame on Dad. It’s Oscar Meyer time.

  3. Katharsis says:

    Obstreperous: noisy and difficult to control.
    “the boy is cocky and obstreperous”

    I learned a new word today!

  4. Todd says:

    We keep saying we don’t want an “imperial” Presidency, but the reality is, that’s how the great majority of the American people view things in practice. The President gets outsized amounts of either credit, or more likely blame for just about anything that happens in this country during his term(s) in office. It’s inevitable that the people who didn’t vote for the President will complain when he does something that they don’t like, such as the immigration executive action. However, the flip side of this is when these same people complained that the President didn’t do “enough” to fix the economy … when his economic plans have been continually stymied by Congress.

  5. Modulo Myself says:

    Douthat is just telling people what they want to hear. It’s total nonsense–not once does he even concede that Obama might be dealing with immigration and climate change because he feels responsibility as the President. No, it’s all about his self-image. Which is rich, considering that the first thing the bs artists said in their endless logorrheic attempts to ‘deal’ with torture was that the endless power claimed by Cheney existed only in the best intentions of self-defense and security. It wasn’t that his self-image enjoyed torture, because that would have made him a monster.

    So it’s interesting how that idea goes out the door when it comes to keeping families together or preventing ecological catastrophe. For Obama, it’s all about who he thinks he is, rather than what’s right.

    And it’s telling: the problem with our political country right now is that the GOP represents people for whom notions of decency and empathy are ridden with insecurity. So the GOP has stopped dealing with anything that doesn’t involve money, weapons, or undeserving freeloaders. Part of the party thinks that immigrants deserve nothing except raids and deportations. The other part finds this a bit harsh but is too cowardly to deal with it.

  6. al-Ameda says:

    I think that Obama was, and is, genuinely surprised at the complete and unrelenting opposition to his presidency since the day he was inaugurated in 2009. Even more so with the opposition based on a premise that he was not a legitimate president, that he was not an American. Actually, it is surprising until you remember that Obama is the first Black American elected president, then you realize that a significant proportion of the opposition to him is based on that simple fact.

    Douthat and others in the commentariat always skirt this, preferring to believe that the problem lies with the president, not with those who have opposed him since he began to prepare for his inauguration. Obama had no choice but to be “imperial,” the normal avenues of cooperation and negotiation having been shut down a day after his inauguration in 2009.

  7. Modulo Myself says:


    I don’t think Obama was surprised at the opposition. I think he was surprised at how quickly the country fell back to treating the opposition as normal, rather than a weird collection of idiots and ideologues with policies that had led us to invade Iraq and embrace Alan Greenspan’s version of economic utopia.

    Furthermore, I think Obama has to be slightly surprised that people like Douthat and James just expect that in America a black man is going to revere the role the Congress has in setting policy.

  8. Pinky says:

    @al-Ameda: Heh.

  9. steve says:

    When there is a power vacuum, someone will always fill it.


  10. Yolo Contendere says:

    Yes, the Republicans have played hard ball to the extreme and that incentivizes the Democrats to do the same. But it doesn’t legitimate flipping the Constitution on its head.

    This is a load of bull. Republicans have played hardball in the past. They’re not playing hardball now. They’re off on the sidelines shitting in their glove. Were they playing hardball when the House voted how many dozen times to defund Obamacare? It would be easier if they were playing hardball. At least then you have someone to play against.

    This is all encapsulated in John Cole’s illustration of the relationship clear back at the beginning of PBO’s presidency. You can’t negotiate dinner with someone when you want Italian and your date wants tire rims and anthrax. Ultimately, you still have to put dinner on the table. With any decent president in office, it sure as hell isn’t going to be anthrax.

  11. Steve V says:

    The talk radio base won’t accept even being part of the same government with Obama. Agreeing with Obama on anything might as well be treason to them. Things have gotta get done somehow.

  12. Mikey says:

    @Yolo Contendere:

    This is a load of bull. Republicans have played hardball in the past. They’re not playing hardball now. They’re off on the sidelines shitting in their glove.

    Pretty much this. The GOP base mistakes this for playing hardball, though, so it will continue.

    There is a big difference between being a tough-but-principled opposition and simply spouting “NO!” at every opportunity like a petulant two-year-old.

  13. Hal_10000 says:

    And this comment thread could be titled: “how liberals learned to stop worrying and love the Imperial presidency”. As I seem to keep saying, the Constitution does not have a “Congress are being jerks” out clause. Obama had a cooperative Congress for the first two years and they subsequently got whacked in the midterm. Even in 2012, when he won re-election, Congress stayed Republican. If the Democrats want to do things, they need to start winning Congressional elections.

    You always need to be asking: Do I want President Rubio to do these kind of things? This is the reason I opposed Bush when he extended executive power: because I feared the next President would expand on them.

  14. Modulo Myself says:


    No, you don’t need to be asking hypotheticals about President Rubio. You need to ask whether something is right or wrong. The Imperial presidency of Cheney was notable because they used half-wits like John Yoo to write dumb opinions on why torture isn’t torture and then went from there. Obama continued these policies, and did not close Gitmo, making him just as bad, but this action with immigration has nothing to do with disappearing humans and torturing them to the breaking point while looking for non-existent ties between a country you want to invade and the terrorist group responsible for a major attack.

    Honestly, the idea that we have to ask about every action endless questions about its process and no questions about its morality is bizarre. Not only the requirement of endless questions: we have to fear, most of all, actions that are right because the semblance of morality might be copied by anyone for any purpose is even crazier.

    We might as well admit that Douthat’s version of American morality is basically alienated from anything except rules, which runs contrary to what is actually desirable in human life. It’s pretty obvious to me, and to a lot of people that this is the case. Our fears, therefore, should be aimed at people, rather than precedents. Don’t elect Cheneys and Bushes, and don’t tolerate in your own life the petty idiot shopkeepers like Douthat.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: The problem with your analogy is that the president isn’t a parent and Congress isn’t a child. They’re co-equal branches of government and, with respect to domestic policy, the president is actually secondary. While the family analogy doesn’t really work, the more apt comparison is between the relationship between a husband and wife.

  16. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @James Joyner:

    the more apt comparison is between the relationship between a husband and wife.

    As in – when your wife goes batshit crazy, spends all day engaged in histrionics and refuses to carry her part of the burden, are you going to 1) spend all day patting her on the head and trying to placate her or 2) bypass her because the bills still have to be paid and dinner still has to be prepared?

  17. Yolo Contendere says:


    And this comment thread could be titled: “how liberals learned to stop worrying and love the Imperial presidency”.

    Again, bullshit. Show me one liberal who thinks this is an ideal situation and the president taking care of business congress should be taking care of is their preference. I won’t even deign to call this an “Imperial Presidency”. If congress had dealt with immigration and PBO said “that’s not what I want, so I’m going to issue executive orders and do what I want.”, you might have a point. Reagan trading arms for hostages to fund Contras which Congress specifically stated they did not want funded, THAT was an Imperial Presidency. This is a President acting where Congress won’t. Not can’t, won’t. At any time in the last what, 500+ days they could have passed the senate bill, the votes are there. They CHOOSE not to, and here we are.

  18. reid says:

    @HarvardLaw92: Yes, and the kids have to be fed, too. The analogy may have needed a little tweaking, but you can’t just dismiss it, James.

  19. Yolo Contendere says:

    @Hal_10000: Oh, and I really don’t spend much time thinking about what President Rubio, or any other Republican option, will do. Republicans don’t need any sort of precedent to do whatever they want. At most, they may look for a fig leaf to give to the beltway pundits so the pundits can sell it to America, but even there they can lie with impunity about the “precedent”, and the pundits won’t call them on it.

  20. James Pearce says:


    You always need to be asking: Do I want President Rubio to do these kind of things? This is the reason I opposed Bush when he extended executive power: because I feared the next President would expand on them.

    I gave up on this type of question in the Bush years because it’s really not all that persuasive. People are generally fine with a powerful president. They just don’t like it when he does something they don’t like.

    We’re just not as principled as we like to think.

  21. michael reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:

    Yes, Congress is a co-equal branch of government. Someone should tell them.

    To borrow from @HarvardLaw, you’re looking at two people, one sane, one insane, and insisting that for form’s sake we treat both identically.

    The fault lies with the crazy. The fault does not lie with the people trying to pick up the slack and keep things moving. Neither Mr. Obama, nor Mr. Bush, nor Mr. Clinton, nor the other Mr. Bush, nor Mr. Reagan, has taken anything away from Congress. Congress has been surrendering their responsibilities with both hands for a long time.

    Once you decide that your only real obligation is to get re-elected and spend the bulk of your time raising money for that end, you get a Congress that ceases to function. Conservatives love to say that you get more of what you subsidize. Well, for decades now Republicans have labored tirelessly to push more money into politics, and with that they subsidize money-grubbing politicians who only care about staying on that gravy train.

    The GOP built this mess, people like you have ideological rationalizations for why we need to keep digging that same hole, and now you’re getting what your favorite billionaires are paying for: a soulless institution devoid of responsibility, just looking for that next scrap from a rich man’s table. Me, me, me, mine, mine, mine is the motto of the GOP, and you laugh bwah hah hah hah at liberal good government types who think civic virtue is important. You sowed, you reap, boo hoo.

  22. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @James Pearce:

    I feel the same way whenever I hear the “cut spending!” rhetoric. It’s almost universally translatable to “cut the spending on THOSE people. Leave mine alone …”

    a la “keep your government hands off of my Medicare …”

    Don’t believe me? Propose closing a large military base in the South and see how quickly those same folks sending Tea Party nutjobs to Congress suddenly find a militant sense of outright love for government spending …

  23. Gustopher says:

    I still don’t see that Obama has done anything “imperial.”

    He doesn’t have the funding to deport everyone, so he is focusing all of that effort on deporting the worst offenders, and the ones where there is less of a icky moral problem (the criminals and the recent arrivals).

    His use of the military has followed modern precedents. If the fights against ISIS is not covered the the AUMF for the War On Terror, then congress needs to step in and either repeal the AUMF, or tighten it — but everyone wants to pretend it covers it.

    I wonder whether the critics mean “uppity” rather than “imperial.”

  24. Davebo says:

    I loved how John McCranky on the talking head show was told “Obama has deported many more illegals than any recent president’ and McCain just claimed “not true!” knowing full well that A. it was true and B. the talking head would never call him the liar that he is.

  25. C. Clavin says:

    Douthat used to be interesting…but that was ages ago.
    This is pathetic tripe.

  26. bandit says:

    Hey – Obama’s a lying POS – who knew???

  27. An Interested Party says:

    Hey – Obama’s a lying POS – who knew???

    Such trenchant commentary…

  28. ernieyeball says:

    The short answer, of course, is that he became president.

    President Gerald Ford. From an interview with NPR.

    When I was a member of the House for 25 and a half years, I used to look at the president and the vice president – those dictators at the other end, how can they be so arbitrary and difficult? Then when you shift from the legislating to the executive branch of the government, and you look at the Congress and say, why are all of those House and Senate members so irresponsible?

  29. Pharoah Narim says:

    Congress is essentially the fundraising arm of the two major political parties. They don’t have time to legislate. Things still have to get done though.

  30. Sirkowski says:

    Douthat’s explanation is nuanced and reasonable:


    Oh, wait. You’re serious…?

  31. JWH says:

    Hmm. I’d say Obama has become a more imperial president, like other presidents before him. But I would also say that it was inevitable, given congressional unwillingness to work with him.

  32. stonetools says:

    I note that none of the people who object to Obama’s so called imperial turn spend much time berating the Republicans for their extremist opposition. No, they spend a line or two referring to it, then spend the rest of the article attacking the President for expanding executive authority.
    Why not change the focus and attack the Republicans for forcing the President’s hand?
    The sad thing about the present state of affairs is that Obama really looks like a fool for earnestly pursuing attempts to achieve his objectives via legislation for so long. He essentially acquiesced to his opponents’ campaign to ruin his Presidency by pursuing cooperation with a Republican Party that was at war with him, and got no benefits from that whatsoever. He was excoriated as a tyrant from the beginning by the right, who simply have escalated their attacks on him now that he has gone the executive order route. The right wing BS machine chorus has been joined by “moderates” who are now berating the “imperial turn”, while in effect exonerating Republican extremism. So much for the “independence” and “evenhandedness” of the moderates.

  33. Jim Treacher says:

    @michael reynolds: It’s okay when YOUR side does it.

  34. JWH says:

    @JWH: Should have said congressional unwillingness to work with him AND already existing delegations of power to the executive.

  35. al-Ameda says:


    So much for the “independence” and “evenhandedness” of the moderates.

    There are very, very, very few “independents.”

    “Independents” are those people who tell pollsters that they’re “independent” because the current branding of the Republican Party is putrid. You cast a much more favorable light on yourself if you tell others that you’re “independent,’ it sounds so much better, so much more reasonable, to say that you’re not affiliated with either party, go forbid that your politics are not pure or muddied by a partisan affiliation. Please.

    I suspect that the actual number of true “independents” is about 10%, and nowhere near the 20% to 30% that many believe to be the case.

  36. Scott F. says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Conservatives love to say that you get more of what you subsidize. Well, for decades now Republicans have labored tirelessly to push more money into politics, and with that they subsidize money-grubbing politicians who only care about staying on that gravy train.

    This is particularly on point, michael.

  37. Grewgills says:

    I agree re the number of true independents, but it isn’t only a phenomenon of the left. It is one of the real cases of both sides do it. The trend increases when politics becomes more toxic and neither party is viewed favorably (fairly or unfairly). I think I laid out a pretty strong case for this a while back and it drove off one of those few fabled independents.

  38. Tillman says:

    Yes, the Republicans have played hard ball to the extreme and that incentivizes the Democrats to do the same. But it doesn’t legitimate flipping the Constitution on its head.

    It doesn’t legitimate the Republicans playing hardball to the extreme either.

    Like I said a week or so ago, if you’re concerned with what is legitimate in all this political kabuki you have to find that first legitimate grievance that starts the avalanche of illegitimate extremism. It starts with healthcare reform, with the Republicans outright refusing to negotiate over an individual mandate that was their own proposal a scant fifteen years ago in favor of following the political advice of one of the biggest public advocates for the Iraq War.

    You and Douthat are showing signs of two-year amnesia here. It was Republicans who credibly used the idea of sovereign debt default in 2011 as a bargaining tactic in fiscal negotiations. They didn’t have an imperial presidency to fall back on as their scapegoat, their legitimizing fact. They decided to purposefully play the extremist hard ball as a political ploy. No president in their right mind would sit back and do nothing. The Republicans leased away any civic high ground in challenging Obama’s continuation of Bush policies, decried so often by the left in Bush’s time, when they decided to resort to craven, institution-rotting politics as the order of the day.

  39. Tillman says:

    If you haven’t seen it linked to on Twitter yet, James, I think you’d appreciate Kevin Drum’s spin on this.

    Doesn’t recast any of the facts in question insightfully, but it definitely marks the basic argument as, if not invalid, unconvincing to opposing partisans.