In practice, Obama followed Bush’s lead when it came to executive power in fighting terrorism and other areas. His administration invoked the state-secrets privilege to avoid disclosing information when challenged in court, and Obama asserted executive privilege to withhold information from Congress amid questions about the Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation. He adopted a more aggressive stance on domestic policy after Republicans won control of the House in 2010, directing staff to look for ways to use administrative actions as end runs around a polarized Congress.
Obama’s advisers said the president thinks about executive power strategically and is willing to exert it fully — such as on environmental regulation — if doing so helps him move past obstacles on Capitol Hill and achieve specific objectives.
“The president is always looking for ways to use his executive authority to advance his policy agenda,” White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said.
For instance, Obama has forced changes in state-level education policy in a way past presidents have not. His Race to the Top program awarded billions of dollars in federal grants to select states that agreed to seek reforms based on administration standards for increasing school assessments, using data and improving teacher quality. The administration gained additional leverage on education by laying out specific requirements for states to receive waivers from penalties required by the No Child Left Behind Act, giving Obama a say in how states designed new programs to monitor and fix low-performing schools.
And Obama is likely to exert his power again in the coming months, when he decides whether to add new regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
Yet, the string of recent controversies has also illustrated a downside to Obama’s philosophy — that he is seen as inconsistent or weak, and that even his natural allies on Capitol Hill can’t predict whether the president will stand firm or back down.
Cohen’s frustrations were on display last week, when he asked Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. during a House committee hearing why the administration chose to leave in place a Bush appointee to lead Justice’s pardon division.
Cohen, who represents a heavily African American district in the Memphis area, said he could not understand why the president had so far not used his full powers to correct what many see as racial inequities, given that black men would be a big beneficiary.
“He could be the Emancipator Part Two,” Cohen said. But, he added, “he’s cautious. I guess it’s part of having been a professor.”
Some liberals were frustrated with Obama’s unwillingness to use his power in 2011 at the height of the showdown between the White House and GOP lawmakers over raising the debt ceiling. House Republicans were threatening to block the borrowing limit increase unless Obama agreed to major spending cuts to Medicare and Social Security.