The Paradoxical Presidential Power Shift

The Republican strategy of stonewalling President Obama has had the unintended effect of expanding power in the executive branch. As the Republican Congress has said no to his proposals at nearly every turn, Obama has instead turned to executive orders to see his plans through.

The Republican strategy of stonewalling President Obama has had the unintended effect of expanding power in the executive branch. As the Republican Congress has said no to his proposals at nearly every turn, Obama has instead turned to executive orders to see his plans through.

President Obama’s “creative use of executive authority” is a paradoxical power shift caused by a GOP-controlled Congress intent on blocking an “ideological enemy” at every turn, according to Zachary Karabell writing for Politico.

“The long-run effect of Obama enmity,” Karabell says, “has been to enable this president to expand the power of the executive branch, perhaps permanently.” The author of “The Leading Indicators, A Short History of the Numbers That Rule Our World,” says expanded presidential power has raised the stakes on who Americans elect to the position.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today on the latest challenge to Obama’s authority, which involves his decision to grant temporary work permit status to some four million undocumented parents of U.S.-born children. Obama’s executive orders also have dealt with student loans, workplace leave, minimum wage, deportations, gun violence and environmental regulation.

Republican critics have accused Obama of abusing and overstepping his constitutional powers as President, but Karabell says Obama has filled the vacuum left by GOP inaction. “Republicans are hardly passive victims of an overweening executive,” he writes. “They are, in fact, paying for their own unilateral surrender.”

Unable to repeal or pass an alternative to the Affordable Care Act, congressional Republicans have settled for obstructing Obama-backed legislation. However, Karabell says Republicans “also relinquished much of its primary tool, the power of the purse.” “Congress and the White House have not agreed on a budget since 2009 and only at the end of 2015 was an actual budget passed by the House,” he notes.

Karabell speculates Obama may become even more daring as the clock ticks down in his final term in office. Senate GOP leadership’s decision not to hold hearings on Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland could lead to appointment without the advice and consent of Congress. Some constitutional scholars believe the power to appoint a Supreme Court justice resides with the President, not the Senate. Such an appointment, if made, would be a political explosion in an already incendiary election year. 

While GOP presidential contenders have wailed about Obama’s executive orders in domestic policy, the real expansion of power, Karabell suggests, has been in national security and foreign military engagement. “The broad implementation of drone warfare (hundreds of strikes over the past five years) would have been stymied were it not for judges and tribunals that have given the executive, CIA and military wide latitude.”

Fear of executive power is hardly new in America. Founding Fathers fretted about it, which led to the creation of checks and balances aimed at preventing it. Of course, those checks and balances only work if they are used. 

Republican presidential candidates haven’t exactly shied away from the notion of unilateral action. Ted Cruz has described a first day in the Oval Office as tearing up Obama’s executive orders, the Iran nuclear deal and Obamacare. Donald Trump has suggested pulling out of major international trade deals and forcing the CIA to carry out waterboarding and even more extreme interrogation tactics on terrorists.

“Obama bears his share of responsibility for taking power where he could,” Karabell concludes, “but had the Republican Congress attempted to do more than thwart him, he would not have been able to.”

The upshot of Obama’s two terms in office is to make “who we elect now more important than ever,” Karabell says. “And perhaps Congress will think twice in the future about surrendering more power to the president."