Emperor Obama? You Must Be Kidding

With President Obama set to take executive action extending temporary legal status to many undocumented immigrants, the right-wing punditocracy is already howling: Impeachment now!

Charles Krauthammer (re)started the ball rolling last week, intoning “I believe this is an impeachable offense.” The use of prosecutorial discretion on immigration, he originally charged two years ago, threatens to install an “imperial presidency” that would be guilty of “impermissibly undermining federal law.”

He was joined in this assessment on Sunday by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat — who, infuriated by Obama’s edict, warned him to retract it or face “the accompanying disgrace.” Douthat conceded that “In past cases, Presidents used the powers he’s invoking to grant work permits to modest, clearly defined populations” but adds that “(n)one of these moves even approached this plan’s scale.”

True enough. But in 1987 the Reagan administration stopped the deportation of minor children of parents granted amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. And in 1989, George H.W. Bush further broadened such amnesties to more than a million people.

No, neither action affected close to the 5 million immigrants likely to be aided by the President’s new initiative. But Obama’s impending actions differ only in degree, not in kind.

The broader idea that Obama’s presidency has been uniquely imperial — eager to ignore Congress and unilaterally wield executive authority — is curious indeed.

Presidents have been accused of running roughshod over the Constitution, Congress and the courts almost since George Washington first took the oath of office down at the corner of Wall Street and Broad.

Jeffersonian radicals questioned our first President’s right to establish a national bank, or level a tax on whiskey.

Jefferson, in turn, was accused of overstepping his powers in purchasing the Louisiana Territory, and imposing a wartime embargo that outlawed foreign trade.

Lincoln was denounced as a tyrant for starting a military draft and suspending the right of habeas corpus during the Civil War.

Teddy Roosevelt was accused of overreaching his authority when he threatened to seize the mines to avert a coal strike, and encouraged a revolution in Panama that allowed us to build a canal there.

Nearly every domestic reform instituted by Franklin Roosevelt was called unconstitutional by his opponents, though the Supreme Court eventually upheld most of them.

What’s equally interesting is how these current complaints about unilateral action conveniently sidestep one massive, life-or-death policy area: the use of American military force.

FDR, that alleged serial abuser of presidential authority, was the last President to ask Congress for a formal declaration of war, as specifically circumscribed in the Constitution.

When Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam, and Richard Nixon escalated it again, right into Cambodia, there were massive protests. So too, when George W. Bush’s administration pressed the theory of a “unitary executive” to give it virtually unlimited power regarding national security in wartime.

But not on the right, where Republicans have refused to officially authorize or deny this president the power to wage war against ISIS, or Libya, or Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

We had a chance to resolve this issue over the question of whether to intervene in Syria in 2013, when Congress demanded that it be consulted. But when Obama considered doing just that, representatives reacted like the proverbial dog that had finally caught the car, blasting him for failing to act on his own while refusing to even debate the issue, much less vote on it.

The bottom line: Complaints that Obama is acting more like an emperor than a President are as internally inconsistent as they are historically ignorant.