Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The two sides to Obama's use of presidential power

The big news recently is that Obama signed a bill that would allow him to indefinitely detain people suspected of terrorism. His signing statement ensures us that he won't use it to detain US citizens. But sorry if I don't just take your word for it. Not to mention it's not right to do to non-US citizens. You can't sign this bill and detain people abroad indefinitely and also claim to support human rights for the rest of the world. Basic due process is a fundamental right and without it you can't make a very big claim for supporting freedom.

So we can add this to a list of things Obama claims he has the power to do as president. That list includes, among others I'm sure I'm not remembering: the power to kill people (even US citizens) who he puts on some list because they suspect them of being a terrorist but who don't want to go through the trouble of capturing, the power to send drones to sovereign countries (even allies) and drop bombs on people they suspect of being terrorists (and take no accountability when those bombs kill civilians), the power to drop bombs on countries in order to try and keep their regimes from killing their citizens (ie. regime change) without permission from congress, the power to keep Gitmo open and not release detainees who are innocent, and any number of powers the come with the Patriot Act.

That's quite the list of presidential authority. Even the Bush administration didn't go that far in some places. But that list is pretty limited to national security/foreign policy issues. That's probably in large part due to the fact that those areas are where the president is vested with the most authority. Whereas domestic issues are more vested in congress. And that leads me to the other side of the coin, where Obama doesn't seem to use his power as president in the same aggressive manner than he does elsewhere. Adam Serwer has the comparison of Obama with the presidents since Reagan on how many recess appointments they made:

President Barack Obama used his authority to appoint former Ohio attorney general Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Wednesday without approval from the Senate, which was in recess. By doing so, Obama defied Senate Republicans who had sought to block any and all such recess appointments by holding "pro-forma" sessions for the sole purpose of obstructing the president's ability to fill executive branch and judicial vacancies.

According to reports from the Congressional Research Service, during their time in office President Ronald Reagan made 240 recess appointments, President George H. W. Bush made 77 recess appointments, President Bill Clinton made 140 recess appointments, and George W. Bush made 171. Obama's first term has seen a paltry 28. In this context, Obama's move seems less like a power grab and more like the proverbial 98-pound weakling taking a second to wipe the sand out of his eyes.

The ratios are also similar when it comes to judicial appointments. And there is the infamous situation with the open seats on the fed. Obama has been very deferential to congressional republicans when it comes to their extremely high level of obstruction. The thing about recess appointments is that it's a way to get around that obstructionism. Yet Obama hasn't pursued it as often as other presidents. I'm not sure why, especially given his aggressive use of power that I mention above. It's strange that he would have some objection to using power in one instance and not another.

One reason I can think of is that they just don't see appointments as being as important as national security/foreign policy issues. Another is that even though some republicans might fuss over the list I posted above, there really isn't a lot of objection to it from republicans. The indefinite detention bill passed with bipartisan support. Perhaps Obama doesn't use his power on domestic issues because he doesn't want to make the opposition mad. This would seem to fit with legislative style.

Whatever the reason, it's nice to see him finally use his power to get something good done. Though he should probably be as aggressive with that power as he has elsewhere because that's the only way to get these appointments through. And the public doesn't care about this. Even political junkies probably won't remember this stuff in 10 months. Though I hope people remember the national security/foreign policy instances of his use of power and try to hold him accountable.

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