Barack Obama, the Imperial President

Obama has governed without regard for the views of his opponents and with near contempt for Congress.

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Barack Obama is becoming an imperial president.

The term, first coined by historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., in his important The Imperial Presidency, describes a style of governing almost monarchial in nature. As applied to the likes of Richard Nixon, the longtime Schlesinger nemesis who occupied the White House when the book was published, it is not meant as a compliment. It was, instead, a clarion call for limits on executive power.

Obama, since coming into office, has made frequent use of executive power to achieve his objects, even over the stated opposition of Congress and the federal courts. Nowhere is this more clear than his administration’s repeated--and thus far successful--efforts to block the resumption of oil and natural gas exploration in the Gulf of Mexico.

It also very much in evidence in the ways in which his appointees within the alphabet soup of federal agencies have tried to seize control of key levers of the U.S. economy through regulations. Obama’s FCC has slapped new controls on the Internet that Congress specifically rejected prior to their imposition. Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency is trying to impose new environmental standards that would force the imposition of some kind of cap-and-trade anti-carbon emission regime on U.S. manufacturing and transportation, again despite the Congress’ specific rejection of such a scheme. And that’s just a few of the more egregious things in the policy arena. [See editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

On national security he has continued many of the previous administration’s policies that the left, when Bush was president, decried as abusive of civil liberties including so-called warrantless wiretaps and the maintenance of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But he also, in an apparent violation of the War Powers Act, has told Congress, in effect, to go pound sand when it comes to the current U.S. involvement in Libya since it is only--by his definition--temporary and limited.

In another Nixonian move Obama may be moving to politicize the IRS in ways that will chill donations to groups opposed to his agenda. Though the IRS says the move was thought up by career employees and not undertaken at the direction of the White House, as the Wall Street Journal editorialized, “it will still serve the Democrats' purpose in time for 2012 fundraising. A tax probe of donations given by a specific class of political donors is a boldfaced attempt to punish and discourage political speech.”

Another effort to punish political speech, and to compile an enemies list in the finest traditions of the Nixon White House, is a proposed Executive Order that would require federal agencies to collect information about the campaign contributions and other political expenditures of potential contractors before awarding any federal contract.

This latest move is getting significant pushback on Capitol Hill. On Thursday Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, and Small Business Committee Chairman Sam Graves introduced legislation that would “prohibit federal agencies from collecting or using information relating to campaign contributions and other political expenditures by potential contractors in the federal procurement process.”

The bill, the “Keeping Politics Out of Federal Contracting Act of 2011,” the members said in a joint release, “reaffirms the fundamental principle that federal contracts should be awarded free from political considerations and be based on the best value to the taxpayers.”

Specifically, the bill would:

  • Prohibit a federal agency from collecting the political information of contractors and their employees as part of any type of request for proposal in anticipation of any type of contract;
  • Prohibit the agency from using political information received from any source as a factor in the source selection decision process for new contracts, or in making decisions related to modifications or extensions of existing contracts; and
  • Prohibit databases designed to be used by contracting officers to determine the responsibility of bidders from including political information (except for information on contractors’ violations already permitted by law).
  • “This legislation preempts an executive order designed to silence and intimidate job creators and Americans who are passionate enough to a support cause,” Issa said. “Businesses should not have to determine and report to the government on whether certain employees contributed to organizations that support or oppose positions on issues including gay marriage and abortion.  Imagine your employer asking for such information--it would happen for some if the current draft executive order is put in place.” Sen. Susan Collins, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, and Sens. Lamar Alexander and Rob Portman have introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

    The way Obama has governed, without regard for the views of his opponents and with near contempt for Congress, deserves a thorough examination under the standards Schlesinger set almost 40 years ago.

    • See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.
    • See editorial cartoons about President Obama.
    • See who's been visiting the White House.