Our Voice: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss -- Obama disappoints with imperial presidency

March 27, 2013 

It's been 40 years since Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.'s insightful history of the executive branch, The Imperial Presidency, was first published.

The term has been used with varying degrees of accuracy to describe every president since the book was released in 1973, shortly before Richard Nixon's resignation.

It's too bad the Pulitzer Prize winning historian died in 2007, the year before Barack Obama was elected to his first term. We'd love to hear Schlesinger's take on the current presidency.

He wrote an updated introduction in 2004, taking aim at President George W. Bush's excesses in the wake of 9/11. "Once again, international crisis has resurrected the Imperial Presidency," Schlesinger warned.

Indeed, few, if any, federal actions did more to undermine our Fourth Amendment rights than the Bush administration's Patriot Act, which gives the National Security Agency virtual carte blanche to eavesdrop on Americans' phone conversations and snoop through our email.

Bush maintained that as president, he also had the inherent power to secretly imprison American citizens suspected of terrorism and hold them indefinitely without trial nor even any charges.

In 2008, we recommended that Herald readers vote for Obama. His message of hope and change resonated with us.

But one of the changes we'd hoped for -- a presidency that embraced the separation of powers our Founding Fathers envisioned -- never materialized.

His end run around Congress to enact part of the Dream Act is a good example of inflating the concept of executive privilege to dangerous new levels.

Whether you agree with the policy doesn't change the threat to the American system of checks and balances posed by such unilateral actions.

Issuing the order in the midst of his re-election campaign, when motivating Hispanic voters was key to Obama's success at the polls, makes it hard to view the move as anything but a cynical political ploy.

We can't recall such a blatantly political display of an imperial president's misuse of power since the Nixon administration.

Obama's policy on the use of drones is even more troubling. Attorney General Eric Holder's response to the question raised during Sen. Rand Paul's recent filibuster wasn't reassuring.

Rand was holding up the confirmation of the president's nominee for CIA director until the White House addressed his questions about the use of drones against American citizens.

Holder sent the Kentucky Republican a letter. "It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: 'Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?' " Holder wrote. "The answer to that question is no."

But the New York Times reported last May that military-age males killed in a strike zone are counted as combatants absent explicit posthumous evidence proving otherwise.

In other words, if you're killed by a drone, then you're presumed to have been engaged in combat against America. Not a whiff of due process in that mess.

In part, the powers of the imperial presidency have expanded to fill a vacuum left by Congress' inability to get anything done.

Recent history proves that unless Congress begins to fulfill its duties and quit wallowing in a perpetual stalemate, the White House will continue to accumulate more power, regardless of the occupant.

"Democracy's singular virtue -- its capacity for self-correction -- will one day swing into action," Schlesinger predicted.

With each administration, it gets a little harder to share his optimism.

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