The Presidency Will Not Be Weakened.


One of the biggest reasons I voted for Obama was because I thought he was more likely than McCain to accept the Constitutional limitations on his presidency. One of the 800 or so crises we’re currently facing is a serious weakening of the rule of law thanks to the Bush administration’s adoption of the neo-monarchist theory of the unitary presidency. Unless the Obama administration is willing to back the fuck off of policies like indefinite detention and dismissing entire court cases by shrieking about state secrets, then they’re assisting the Bush administration in causing permanent damage to the rule of law.

At the risk of sounding a little snarky, I’m not exactly surprised that the Obama administration isn’t too keen on completely rejecting Bush’s expansions of executive power.  I’ve argued before that structural incentives will push Obama towards either increasing or consolidating the power of the executive branch.  It’s inevitable; presidents want to implement their agendas in full despite the fact that the American system is designed to restrain the executive’s actions.  The only way to get around that is to either A) circumvent those structures using existing presidential powers or B) eliminate those structures using any means possible.  While I’m reasonably certain that Obama won’t take the latter route, he almost certainly will take steps to preserve many of the powers George W. Bush bequeathed to him.

Really, at this point, Congress is the only entity that can restrain executive power.  The problem, of course, is that either party isn’t much interested in constraining executive power; Democrats are in power (and want to implement their agenda), and Republicans have basically adopted unlimited presidential power as a critical part of their project. Honestly, I don’t see executive power returning to its pre-Bush status quo anytime soon, if ever.


Jamelle Bouie is a writer for Slate. He has also written for The Daily Beast, The American Prospect and The Nation. His work centers on politics, race, and the intersection of the two.

You can find him on Twitter, Flickr, and Instagram as jbouie.
  • Scott

    I’m am surprised, I took Obama at his word that he was all about change.

  • Big Word

    Bush’s expansion of executive powers were fostered by the fear the terrorist attack of 9/11 and are borderline criminal and unconstitutional. Obama’s influence and power is of another kind entirely. His primarily comes from a damn near landslide election and the current financial crisis.

  • Scott

    You must be kidding. Obama only got 52.9% of the vote, hardly a landslide or a mandate. Obama promised us a repudiation of the Bush admin and its policies. Now we hear that the Justice Department is resisting pressure to release documents the Bush administration kept secret about domestic wiretapping, data collection on travelers and U.S. citizens, and interrogation of suspected terrorists. BTW, the last pres to get a mandate was probably Regan in 1984 with 58.8%.

  • ladyfresshh

    are not made any less scary because he’s on “our” side.


  • Big Word

    Honestly, I’ve never seen the government illegally wiretapping folks, extraordinary rendition(which is I take it illegal detention and torture) and a bunch of other criminal shit Bush did as expansions of executive power. It’s what the executive branch always does in times of wars and crisis with or without Congressional Support.

  • Big Word: If Bush uses his wartime authorities to create new powers/devices for the president, it becomes precedent. Presidents never cede those powers once the wars are over.

    Obama has more berth than any president has ever had to act unilaterally, without Congressional sanction.

    (rendition, btw, is taking terror suspects and secretly sending them to countries that can/do torture.)

  • quadmoniker

    BW: Presidents have done these things before, but have not side-stepped Congress so completely the way Bush did.

  • Grump

    Color me the optimist, but I’m believing that Obama’s using the these same powers to correct the mistakes from Bush’ presidencey. This calls for me to have some faith in him that once he gets done, he can close the door on others with less scriples, using these expanded powers.

  • Grump

    Again, I’m optimistic about it. Which could lead anybody to say that I like Obama. However, I’m thinking that Obama’s staff just might be looking over the files from Bush and seeing if there really are any “State secrets” that need to be kept. If not, then the right thing to do is to open them things up for scrutiny by the public.

  • oh, absolutely. there’s a chance Holder and them are reviewing the cases before they allow the info to be made public.

    we’ll see.

  • Sarah

    I bet that Obama would be a non-monarchical president, just like Ned, but I’m beginning to think I might be proven wrong. I had friends who thought I was absolutely crazy and we were heading for a socialist dictatorship. I still believe that’s not true. But maybe it’s no exaggeration to say that the Presidency has been expanded and it’s not snapping back to its previous size. The state secrets stuff and the detainee stuff is serious. We’re fighting two wars and enduring a financial crisis; these are the kind of times when people want “strong” leaders and broad executive powers. (Heck, those were FDR’s words. “Broad executive powah,” as he would pronounce it.) Maybe Obama’s a good enough guy not to do anything horrible with his powah, but he has it, and he’s doing expansive and risky things with it. (I have a lot of beef with the choices he’s made over the bailout and the stimulus.) Somebody has to be on him like a cheap suit.

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