Obama Expands Executive Power for Good, Not Evil

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Although Sen. Obama campaigned against George W. Bush's expansion of executive power in 2008, President Obama has studied Bush for ways to do just that as he battles House Republicans to pass economic legislation, The New York Times' Charlie Savage reports. This story does not appear to be the product of aides griping to a reporter because they were unsettled by the president's change in view. It seems Obama's change of heart is something the White House wants Americans to know since a lot of White House folks talked to Savage on the record. Former White House chief of staff Bill Daley, deputy chief of staff Nancy-Ann DeParle, White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer, and White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler are quoted. And the shift from badgering Congress to do what he wanted to just doing what the administration could through executive orders was Obama's idea, Daley told The Times.

It happened over a long period of time, but Obama's reversal is still big, and goes against the expectations many had when he was running for president. For example, check out this October 24, 2008 editorial from The Tampa Bay Times:

Presidents don't like to give up power, but the next one will have to step back from Bush's power grab if America's system of checks and balances is to be put right. As a former constitutional law lecturer at the prestigious University of Chicago Law School, Obama is well versed in the historical battles between the branches. He has said on the campaign trail that every branch of government is limited.

Obama has demonstrated in his voting record and statements that he understands the importance of protecting traditional American civil liberties and discarding Bush's concept of overarching executive power. 

But Savage reports in The Times that Obama's legal advisers actually turned to an internal memo from the Bush administration when it was trying to figure out how to make recess appointments even though the Senate was technically in session. The White House seems to want to make the case that unlike the Bush administration, the Obama administration isn't using executive orders to expand its options on, say, torture. It was Bush's expansion of power in national security that Obama campaigned against, as in this October 2007 speech, when he said: "[W]e've paid a heavy price for having a President whose priority is expanding his own power. The Constitution is treated like a nuisance. Matters of war and peace are used as political tools to bludgeon the other side." Instead, Obama has used executive orders to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, help veterans get jobs, and increase fuel economy standards. But as Savage reports, gross misuse of power is in the eye of the beholder. He writes:

In February, two conservative advocacy groups — Crossroads GPS and the American Action Network — sponsored a symposium to discuss what they called “the unprecedented expansion of executive power during the past three years.” It reached an awkward moment during a talk with a former attorney general, Edwin Meese III, and a former White House counsel, C. Boyden Gray.

“It’s kind of ironic you have Boyden and me here because when we were with the executive branch, we were probably the principal proponents of executive power under President Reagan and then President George H. W. Bush,” Mr. Meese said, quickly adding that the presidential prerogatives they sought to protect, unlike Mr. Obama’s, were valid.

It makes a June 22, 2008 New York Times story on the issue look prophetic:

But Mr. McCain, on balance, has been far more willing to embrace Mr. Bush’s expansive approach than Mr. Obama, who has been sharply critical. Yet even some Democrats, who have accused Mr. Bush of abusing his office and have called for a curb on executive power, recognize that a party’s perspective can change once its candidate is in the White House.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.