Rule of Law

Podcast: Is Barack Obama’s “imperial presidency” constitutional?

The Republican Party’s rallying cry for the 2014 mid-term election just might be “Barack Obama is an imperial president.” But how true are those claims, when compared to other Presidents?


The President’s foes have found common ground in agreement that Mr. Obama is acting, on a regular basis, outside the Constitution. The White House has dismissed the idea, saying that Republicans allege the President is a bully in domestic politics and but also weak in foreign policy.


Aside from the political arguments, the “imperial president” debate goes back to the Constitutional Convention in 1787, to the era of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and to the constitutional actions of two Presidents widely regarded by historians as the best in American history.


Abraham Lincoln exercised his presidential powers by suspending habeas corpus during the Civil War.  And Franklin Roosevelt confined Japanese-Americans to internment camps by an executive order that the Supreme Court upheld in the Korematsu decision.


The late eminent historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr’s’ influential book, The Imperial Presidency, brought scholarship about presidential powers to a wider audience in 1973.


Schlesinger warned that the American political system was threatened by “a conception of presidential power so spacious and peremptory as to imply a radical transformation of the traditional polity.”


The current debate is about President Obama’s foreign and domestic powers outside the context of a traditional war or military conflict.


At hand is a fervent discussion over President Obama’s use (or non-use) of executive power over everything from his enforcement of the Affordable Care Act to the lethal use of drones on American citizens, to his refusal to defend federal laws against gay marriage.


To help us decide if this debate is just politics or a constitutional issue are two leading experts on the subject.


Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute. His research interests include executive power and the role of the presidency. He is the author of False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency.


Simon Lazarus is senior counsel for the Constitutional Accountability Center. Before joining the Center, Si was Public Policy Counsel to the National Senior Citizen Law Center and he served as Associate Director of President Jimmy Carter’s White House Domestic Policy Staff.


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