Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps
May 14, 2014
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One person’s imperial president is another’s effective leader

The GOP’s favorite term for Obama

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A regular feature that decodes popular political phrases and words.

It sounds like a phrase describing the leader of Syria or Venezuela – countries that are democracies on paper but ruled by a dictator – yet “imperial presidency” increasingly has become a GOP favorite for describing the Obama presidency.

Where we’re hearing it

The phrase “imperial presidency” pops up in Republican Party rhetoric like an official campaign slogan. The bumper sticker-ready term is evoked at campaign stops and back on Capitol Hill in places ranging from reports made by the majority leader’s office to Op-Eds penned by tea party leaders.

Use of the term increased following this year’s State of the Union Address when President Barack Obama promised he would work around the legislative branch of government by using executive powers.

Democrats greeted the announcement with a sigh of relief, hoping it would mean that more of the president’s initiatives would be completed. Conservatives, however, saw the promise as a pointed threat and charged that Obama would overuse his authority.

“I think that the term ‘imperial’ is kind of descriptive enough that it resonates,” Barry Loudermilk, a candidate for the Republican nomination in Georgia’s 11th Congressional District, said before a recent campaign event. He said that his constituents have “been seeing this migration toward — a dictatorship is too strong a word, because we’re not to that point — but an administrative state where the government is being run through policy making instead of laws.”

Loudermilk is not alone in his concerns. Republicans in the House passed two bills along party lines in March aiming to keep the president from arbitrarily determining which laws he could enforce or break.

The ENFORCE the Law Act and the Faithful Execution of the Law Act would give Congress standing in court to challenge an executive policy if it does not appear to enforce existing laws and would require the Justice Department to tell Congress when a federal officer does not administer those laws. The bills have been introduced in the Senate but are a longshot for being brought to a vote.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., addressed the phrase and its implications early on in a 33-page report he released in 2012. And in January, Texas tea party Republican Sen. Ted Cruz penned an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal in which he wrote, “It is the Obama precedent that is opening the door for future lawlessness … an imperial presidency threatens the liberty of every citizen. Because when a president can pick and choose which laws to follow and which to ignore, he is no longer a president.”

And the House held a hearing in February titled “Enforcing the President’s Constitutional Duty to Faithfully Execute the Laws.”

“My view [is] that the president, has in fact, exceeded his authority in a way that is creating a destabilizing influence in a three branch system,” testified Jonathan Turley, a law school professor at George Washington University, at the hearing “[T]he rate at which executive power has been concentrated in our system is accelerating. And frankly, I am very alarmed by the implications of that aggregation of power.”

Where we’ve heard it before

Obama is not the first president to be labeled “imperial.” George W. Bush, Richard Nixon and Franklin Roosevelt were all targets of the same criticism. The term was popularized in 1973 in historian Arthur Schlesinger’s book, “The Imperial Presidency,” but the history of the concept dates back to the origins of the Constitution.

“Since the very founding of the public there has been a concern about the concentration of power — many leading minds expressed concern about limiting powers given to the president,” Turley said.

Schlesinger noted in his book that power shifted among the three branches of government during Roosevelt’s long tenure. His administration created the Executive Office of the President in 1939, plus there was the growth of executive agencies under the New Deal. Consequently, there was an increase in the number of close confidants, advisory committees and executive staff working for the president who weren’t subject to congressional approval or control. That change paved the way to a modern president that has greater power to take unilateral action.

What does it really mean?

But what does “imperial president” really mean?

A strict definition of an imperial president is one who holds himself unaccountable to the courts, Congress or the press. He is in essence a monarch who rules as he pleases, is infrequently challenged and keeps many of his matters secret.

Obama’s critics would argue that he fits into many of these categories — at least some of the time. His presidency has been criticized for stretching the bounds of laws, from granting an exception to big businesses as part of Obamacare to his pursuit of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

But while some say Obama is the imperial president that Nixon always wanted to be, others argue that one man’s imperial president is another’s successful leader. Democrats say Obama’s unilateral decisions are a much-needed defense mechanism against Congress’ inability to act, not an attempt to seize more power. Here’s Obama’s justification in his State of the Union speech:

“But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Even with his new promise, numbers show that the amount of Obama’s executive orders are fewer than his predecessors, while his executive memoranda places him at about par.

The way the term imperial president is used now it’s hard to believe any president is immune to the line. Data from Google trends suggests that no modern president since Nixon has escaped the label at least once during his term. But regardless of the politics behind it, the use of the phrase shows how much the circumstances of modern presidents and their ways of ruling have changed from the past, which ultimately asks if it’s fair to hold them to the same standards set by the drafters of the constitution more than 200 years ago.