40 Years Later, a Resurgence of Presidential Powers

Presidential power has been on the rise since Nixon left office.

June 18, 2012, 5:25 PM

WASHINGTON, June 19, 2012 -- No president wants to be compared with Richard Nixon, the only commander-in-chief to resign because of an abuse-of-power scandal. But President Obama chose the week of Watergate's 40-year anniversary to announce unilateral action on immigration, an emotional issue that has divided the country.

Republicans today are upset that Obama is using bureaucratic know-how to get his own stuff done without them in Congress. Taking executive action is hardly unique; that's why the term "executive order" is commonplace. George W. Bush, particularly, expanded the power of the Oval Office in a way that drew the attention of critics, including Obama during his first campaign.

Obama's use of the presidency is nowhere near the level on which Nixon operated, trying to cover up a scandal that led to him resigning in disgrace. But it was Nixon who championed the old congressional runaround, though presidents as far back as Theodore Roosevelt set legislative agendas without going through Capitol Hill.

The Watergate scandal curbed what has been described as Nixon's imperial presidency. Congress awakened to pass the War Powers Act, which requires presidents to get legislators' approval for sending troops to fight overseas. Congress also passed laws requiring that political campaign funding be disclosed and imposing limits on campaign donations, ordered a Justice Department prosecutor to be charged with investigating the executive branch, and created a nonpartisan budget office to prevent the president from using public money at will.

And Congress created the Freedom of Information Act, which lets the news media and the public request documents from the government.

It's some of those very issues in which Obama has found himself entangled.

Obama has been accused by critics of running around Congress. It started with his "We Can't Wait" campaign to use executive orders in an effort to jolt the economy. Obama thought up the phrase himself, according to The New York Times, and tried to rally supporters around the country for his cause -- passing executive-branch policy intended to do things like give veterans jobs.

But Obama's powers go beyond an over-hyped public-service announcement. Last year, Obama used the military to support the air war in Libya and pilot drones that fired missiles. He never asked Congress for approval, drawing the irritation of his usual Republican critics and even some liberals. In a defensive memo, the White House argued that Obama didn't need Congress's authorization because American troops were being put in only little risk of harm.

Somewhat ironically, Obama campaigned against Bush's broad use of executive power, especially in the Iraq war. In 2007 he said that in the "last few years, we've seen an unacceptable abuse of power at home." And he said Bush's "priority is expanding his own power."

Nixon used executive privilege -- the president's right to withhold information -- to prevent Congress from gaining insight into his decision-making, and he withheld members of his administration from testifying on the Hill. He gave his Cabinet secretaries more power without running it by Congress, and he escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam, a war that was never declared, without lawmaker approval.

He also froze out some journalists from the White House, secretly hired other journalists to track Democrats competing for the presidential nomination, and sought to recruit Secret Service agents to disclose information about Ted Kennedy.

On the domestic front, Obama has acted unilaterally on a number of issues. He's drawn criticism from open-government advocates who say his administration acts too slowly or not at all on information requests. He told his Justice Department to stop enforcing the Defense of Marriage Act, he named a de facto director of a contested consumer-protection agency, and he's let states get out of the much-criticized No Child Left Behind law.

Last week, Obama debuted his biggest solo act yet, announcing rather politically that his Homeland Security Department would no longer deport younger illegal immigrants who haven't committed a crime.

The White House insists that the immigration order isn't a runaround of Congress.

"As the President said on Friday, these DHS enforcement directives are part of a progression that has taken place over the last three years, ensuring that the Administration is using our finite resources most effectively and not focusing on productive members of society who are here through no fault of their own," White House spokesman Luis Miranda said in a statement.

"This temporary solution is the right thing to do, but it does not replace the need for meaningful bipartisan Congressional action to fix our nation's broken immigration system, and the President continues to urge Congress to take action on this issue, including passage of the Dream Act with a path to citizenship," Miranda said.

In his standard weekly address, Obama didn't hide his public disdain for that lesser branch of government.

"There's no excuse for Congress to stand by and do nothing while so many families are struggling," he said.

This is also the president who has a personal "kill list" of terrorists, and the president who gave the order to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen in Yemen who was fueling propaganda for al Qaeda. Obama reportedly called the decision to kill the cleric "an easy one."

Wrote The New York Times, which in 1971 published the secret Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War: "Nothing else in Mr. Obama's first term has baffled liberal supporters and confounded conservative critics alike as his aggressive counterterrorism record. His actions have often remained inscrutable, obscured by awkward secrecy rules, polarized political commentary and the president's own deep reserve."

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