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Barack Obama and the Imperial Presidency

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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.

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