Obama has been willing to push the bounds of executive power when it comes to making life-and-death decisions about drone strikes on suspected terrorists or instituting new greenhouse gas emission standards for cars.
But at other times he has been skittish. When immigration activists first urged him to halt deportations of many illegal immigrants, for instance, Obama said he didn’t have the authority to do so. He eventually gave in after months of public protest and private pressure from immigrant and Hispanic advocates, granting relief to certain people who had been brought to the United States as children.
And at key moments, Obama has opted against power plays. In the 2011 debt-ceiling fight, Obama ruled out unilaterally raising the country’s borrowing limit even though some constitutional scholars, as well as many of his political allies, believed doing so was well within his authority.
The president’s inconsistency is so befuddling that not even his critics can get it straight. They simultaneously charge that he is “leading from behind” and that he is displaying, in the words of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), “the arrogance of power.”
Some of his friends are a bit confused, as well.
“He’s a smart guy, a scholarly guy, but I can’t figure him out,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), who has been unsuccessfully pushing for Obama to use his pardoning powers more aggressively to release nonviolent drug offenders from prison.
Obama’s current and former advisers said the president’s approach is deliberate and coherent: On national security, he exercises power to keep the country safe, whereas on domestic issues, he acts strategically on a case-by-case basis.
Still, the advisers acknowledge, Obama’s sometimes-yes, sometimes-no approach can give the appearance that he’s all over the map. Four-and-a-half years in, they said, he still is figuring out how to strike the right balance.
“He is deeply concerned both that his office . . . never violate its primary duty to abide by the Constitution’s checks and balances and that he nonetheless exercise those powers to the limit as needed to protect the nation and its people,” said Laurence Tribe, a Harvard Law professor who has been a mentor of Obama’s for two decades and served briefly in Obama’s Justice Department.
Still, Tribe expressed concern that Obama, himself a former law instructor, “is being a bit too much the constitutional lawyer in some of these matters and not enough the ordinary citizen, sharing the anger that ordinary citizens understandably feel but flexing the muscles that no citizen other than Barack Obama possesses.”