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The Powerful, Powerless President

Frenzy of finger-pointing reveals irony on both sides.

President Obama(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

photo of Reid Wilson
June 21, 2012

To hear one side argue the case, Barack Obama is the most powerful president in the nation’s history, using his office to advance the Democratic agenda through executive orders and unilateral action. To hear the other side, Obama is hobbled by conservatives in Congress intent on blocking his agenda at every turn.

But listening closely, it becomes clear that each side is making the counterintuitive case. Republicans argue that Obama has expanded his powers beyond those traditionally granted a president, while Democrats — and, notably, Obama himself — counter that the most powerful man in the free world has been stymied by a group of congressional freshmen still trying to learn their way around the Capitol.

Republicans have complained about the president’s reach virtually from the beginning of his term in office, when they criticized aspects of the $787 billion stimulus bill that they said handed chunks of money to the executive branch with little specificity on how it would be spent. Some Republicans complained about the administration’s support of the NATO-led air campaign in Libya. The latest outrage came over the administration's announcement on Friday that it would suspend deportations of undocumented immigrants under the age of 30 who would qualify for protections under the Dream Act — legislation that has twice failed to make it through Congress.


The president, on the other hand, must run for reelection in a toxic economic climate, one that might sink even an incumbent whose approval ratings once soared so high. To win, he must explain to the public why his accomplishments in his first term haven’t sped a languid recovery — an explanation that has so far centered on reminding voters of the disastrous economic quagmire he inherited. Implicit in that reminder, and explicit in Obama’s remarks, is the idea that the current situation is someone else’s fault.

“What is holding us back is not a lack of big ideas. It isn’t a matter of finding the right technical solution. Both parties have laid out their policies on the table for all to see,” Obama said at a campaign rally in Cleveland last week. “What’s holding us back is a stalemate in Washington between two fundamentally different views of which direction America should take. And this election is your chance to break that stalemate.”

Obama has blamed his predecessor, George W. Bush. He has blamed partisanship. He has blamed Congress (Democrats would love it if Obama went out of his way to blame the Republican Congress, rather than just the body at large). He has even blamed the European economy, and the austerity-first approach Germany has pushed on Greece, Spain, Portugal, and other troubled economies seeking bailouts.

The irony on both sides is rich. To make the case that the current economic malaise isn’t his fault, and that it will take more time for his policies to solve the crisis, the most powerful man in the world is, in essence, admitting that he’s not really that powerful at all.

The same Republicans who opposed the administration’s support of the Libya campaign, worried that destabilizing dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi would provide a toehold for extremist groups, now want to get involved with the uprising in Syria on behalf of an opposition even more fragmented than Libya’s. The same Republicans who wanted more legislative-branch guidance for stimulus spending kicked off the 112th Congress by banning earmarks.

(There’s also the happy irony for Republican political strategists that the stimulus bill and the Libya campaign have given them the two shorthand sound bites they most enjoy using against Obama — Solyndra and what one administration adviser described to The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza as a strategy of “leading from behind.”)

Both sides have a point. No administration has ever willingly ceded executive powers to the legislative branch, and Obama’s first three and a half years have built on the powers Bush accumulated while in office. Obama has continued and grown a campaign of drone attacks and cyberwarfare, prosecuted more leakers of government secrets than all his predecessors combined, and even authorized the death of an American citizen implicated in terrorism in Yemen. (Further irony: Those facts, added to Guantanamo Bay’s continued operation, are the roots of liberal discontent with their erstwhile hero.)

Obama has, in fact, demonstrated a proclivity for expanding presidential powers. But he is simultaneously powerless.

No other president has had to deal with such an interconnected global economy, in which problems across the ocean in Greece could be but the first dominoes to fall in a worldwide chain of renewed recession. No other president has had to leave so much of his own political fate in the hands of European leaders, reduced to advocating for other nations’ parliaments to choose stimulus measures over austerity. And no other president has worried so much about elections in France and Greece. (They both broke Obama’s way: France elected the pro-stimulus François Hollande; Greece voted in a party that favors staying within the euro, giving markets hope that its bailout would remain on track.)

The 2012 election is devolving into a frenzy of finger-pointing, with each side blaming the other for our economic malaise. After all, it couldn’t possibly be their party’s fault — the other side is simply too powerful.

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