The Imperial Presidency marches on

Glenn Greenwald discusses how the doctrine that the president is unconstrained by either the Constitution or the Congress is being advanced even more vigorously, that “the Obama administration is arrogating unto the President the unilateral, unrestrained right to start wars in all circumstances, whether or not the U.S. is attacked.” And Obama’s defenders are using the same arguments they criticized when Bush’s defenders used them when he similarly ignored the constitution.

Greenwald adds:

Then there’s the notion that Presidents in the past have started similar wars without Congressional approval. That’s certainly true, but so what? The fact that an act is commonplace isn’t a defense or justification. That “defense” was also a common refrain of Bush followers to justify their leader’s chronic unconstitutional acts and other forms of law-breaking: Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and FDR interned Japanese-Americans, so why are you upset that Bush is acting outside the law? The pervasiveness of this form of thought underscores the dangers of learned acquiescence: once a government engages long enough or pervasively enough in a certain form of criminality or corruption, the citizenry is trained to accept it and collectively ceases to resist it, even learns to embrace it. What Obama is doing in Libya is either lawful or it isn’t on its own terms; whether other Presidents in the past have acted similarly (and they have) is irrelevant.

One’s views on the desirability of the Libya war have absolutely nothing to do with whether Obama has acted legally and/or whether his theories of presidential power are valid. This, too, should have been decisively settled during the Bush years, when Bush followers invariably argued that Bush was justified in eavesdropping without warrants or torturing because of the good outcomes it produced (Keeping Us Safe) — as though Presidents have the power to violate laws or transgress Constitutional limits provided they can prove that doing so produces good results. The one and only safeguard against tyranny is that political leaders are subjected to the constraints of the Constitution and law (we’re a nation of laws or a nation of men, said Adams: you must choose). To argue that you’re supportive of or indifferent to lawless acts because of the good results they produce is simply another way of yearning for a benevolent tyrant (and is another way of replicating the mindset of the Bush follower).


  1. says

    “Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” -Thomas Jefferson-
    All of the Presidents swear to uphold and protect the Constitution, yet they abuse their powers as defined under the Constitution often. Following a bad example does not make your actions correct.

    This is why we have 3 branches of government to continually provide checks and balances for and not give one power over the others. The Constitution was written by men who fought to get out from under the rule of a tyrannical king. I don’t think that we give them enough credit.

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