Obama Acts Like He Doesn't Know He's an Executive-Power Extremist

On the fake moderation of a president who talks a good game but doesn't follow through
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It's often hard to tell if President Obama is lying to the American people or to himself. Is he willfully misrepresenting who he is? Or is he blind to his true self? Over the last five years he has repudiated many of the positions he took in 2008, but still talks like and perhaps likes to think of himself as the man who ran on change. 

A passage from his Tuesday speech on Syria provides a striking example. The relevant passage -- an aside on executive power -- comes just after the president explains that he favors a strike on Syria to deter the use of chemical weapons (emphasis added):

That's my judgment as commander-in-chief. But I’m also the president of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy. So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress. I believe our democracy is stronger when the president acts with the support of Congress. And I believe that America acts more effectively abroad when we stand together. This is especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president, and more and more burdens on the shoulders of our troops, while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force.

What a fascinating paragraph! Even as Obama implies that he is a circumspect steward of constitutional democracy, he asserts that even absent "a direct or imminent threat," he has absolute power to wage war without congressional support, the Constitution and the opinions of the demos be damned. If the passage ended there it would be staggering in its internal tension. As Jack Goldsmith explained in detail, intervening in Syria without congressional sign-off would "push presidential war unilateralism beyond where it has gone before." Asserting that power without using it is still an extreme position to take.

Obama goes a delusion farther. Ostensibly because he hasn't yet intervened, even though he repeatedly and needlessly asserts his right to do so unilaterally, he casts himself as moving away from unilateralism and toward consulting Congress. The benefits are "especially true after a decade that put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president," he notes, "while sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force."

The grammer is priceless. Who "put more and more war-making power in the hands of the president"? In Obama's telling, "a decade" put the executive power there.

The absence of a human subject in the sentence isn't hard to figure out. For all President George W. Bush's faults, he sought and received majority support for the Patriot Act, the September 2001 AUMF, the War in Afghanistan, and the War in Iraq. Obama's expansion of the drone war and his illegal war-making in Libya didn't turn out as bad as Iraq, so it's hard to see him as a worse president, but Obama has done more than Bush to expand the war-making power of the White House. As for "sidelining the people’s representatives from the critical decisions about when we use force," it's Obama who went into Libya despite the fact that a House vote to approve U.S. involvement was brought to the floor and voted down.

Yet Obama complains about these trends as if someone other than Obama is responsible for them, and as if he has been and remains powerless to do more to reverse them. When Obama asked Congress to vote in Syria, no one forced him to insist that he had the power to intervene militarily even if a legislative vote declared otherwise. No one forced him to defend the extreme position that the presidential war power is so sweeping that it includes waging wars of choice rejected by Congress that don't involve any direct or imminent threat to the United States. 

He went out of his way to defend that maximal precedent, even as gave us the impression that he was trying to rein in executive power that he claims to find regrettable and worrisome. It's all consistent with Obama's favorite rhetorical tactic: granting the validity of an objection in his rhetoric, then totally ignoring the objection in his actions. In so doing, he confuses public discourse and subverts debate. 

We know that Obama is an executive-power extremist in his actions. He believes the president has the power to intervene militarily without Congress in places that do not threaten America; that he can order American citizens killed in secret without due process; that he can secretly collect data on the phone calls of all Americans; that he can invoke the state-secrets privilege to avoid adjudicating constitutional challenges to his policies on their merits; that he can indefinitely detain prisoners without evidence, charges or due process, that he can sit in judgment of anyone on earth, then send a drone anywhere to strike them.

Yes, we know that Obama is an executive-power extremist in his actions, that there are many steps to rein in executive power that he could take but hasn't taken ... and that he worries repeatedly about an excess of executive power in his rhetoric. What we don't know is the reason for this disconnect. After all, this ain't like Gitmo. If he really wanted to do more to shrink executive power, he could do a lot unilaterally, and no one could stop him. Is he trying to fool us? Or is he fooling himself, because he likes to think of himself as more prudent and moderate man than he is? Can he not bear the truth that he's a Cheneyite extremist*? My best guess is that he's trying to fool us. But it's hard to know for sure.

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*It would be fascinating to look at the many issues on which Bush-Cheney and Obama take the same position, and compare how many times each was referred to in the media as "out of the mainstream," a phrase that faded fast circa January 2009. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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