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April 30, 2012

Presidential Power

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

History tells the story of the delicate balance of power envisioned by our founders. The executive branch of our government was designed to be the method through which federal work got done. The legislative branch was intended to be the branch that defined and authorized that work, and the judicial branch was created to adjudicate the differences.


Sure, that's an abbreviation of a much more complex system design, but it generally conveys the point.


Since the founding, though, presidents have seen fit to test these limits, employing the media to communicate with voters in order to bypass Congress, and often resorting to lawyers to redefine the whole mess when that seemed the only option.


President Barack Obama, once an ardent opponent of expansive presidential power, now has seen the light. The question is like a chicken/egg debate. Which came first, his decision to boldly exercise independence, or the realization that the GOP majority in the House of Representatives would stymie his progressive policy initiatives?


While serving as the junior senator from Illinois, President Obama excoriated then-President George W. Bush for acting independent of the Congress and its constitutional obligation to "check" the power of the executive branch. He mentioned his past experience as a constitutional law professor as the basis of his passionate assertion, even suggesting that he could teach Mr. Bush a thing or two about the balance of power.


No doubt he could, but who’s going to teach him?


President Obama has developed a political strategy to circumvent the Republican-led House of Representatives. He and his advisors make clear that in every case they can, they intend to manage the federal government and policies through Executive Order.


Sound familiar? It ought to, as dating back to President Abraham Lincoln, chief executives have sought to bypass the Congress instead of seeing their agenda die a slow and painful death through congressional inaction led by their political opposites.


Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman called the Congress the "do-nothings." Again, it was a Republican majority that sought to undermine the progressive Democratic presidents. Decades later, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush fought similar battles against obstructionist Democratic congressional leaders.


The issue isn't whether Republican or Democratic presidents regularly use circuitous and potentially extra-constitutional processes to jam their agenda into the public discourse, it's that our national political system is so badly bankrupt that they have to!


So, instead of the non-stop campaign rhetoric, how about a little honesty and common sense for a change? Wouldn't it be great for President Obama to hold a press conference to admit that his past statements about President Bush were inaccurate, that once he became a president with a divided Congress he understood what Mr. Bush had gone through?


That wouldn't excuse this tilting of the power balance, but it would at least explain why this continues to happen, and why they find it necessary to use the U.S. Constitution like a piece of political toilet paper.


And if President Obama really wants to exercise his past academic position to teach someone about our founding document, why doesn't he call Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid?


Senator Reid seems to have forgotten that the U.S. Senate actually has a role to play in this government, other than political posterior coverage for Senate Democrats and the White House, that is.


Now that would be a worthwhile exercise of presidential power.


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