Obama's Moment Arrives

President Barack Obama delivers his inaugural address Tuesday following his swearing-in ceremony on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Video by
By Barton Gellman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Barack Obama takes office today with a realistic prospect of joining the ranks of history's most powerful presidents.

The more familiar observation, that he confronts daunting trials, enhances that prospect. Emergencies have always brought commensurate new authority for the presidents who faced them, not only because the public demanded action but also because rival branches of government went along.

Obama arrives with a rare convergence of additional strengths, some of them inherited and some of his own making. Predicting a presidency, to be sure, is hazardous business, and much will depend on Obama's choices and fortune. But historians, recent White House officials and senior members of the incoming team expressed broad agreement that Obama begins his term in command of an office that is at or near its historic zenith.

"The opportunity is there for Obama to recast the very nature of the presidency," said Sean Wilentz, a presidential historian at Princeton. "Not since Reagan have we had as capable a persuader as Obama, and not since FDR has a president come in with quite the configuration of foreign and domestic crises that open up such a possibility for the reconstruction of the executive."

No president has begun his term with so broad a wave of public confidence -- 78 percent approval in the most recent Gallup poll. There are precedents for single-party control of the White House and Congress, but the early signs suggest that House and Senate Democrats will be far more united in loyalty to Obama than their counterparts were to President Jimmy Carter. The Republican opposition, by contrast, appears to be as fractured as at any time since Barry Goldwater's landslide defeat in 1964. If Obama keeps the loyalty of the online social networks he used to win election, with unprecedented success in fundraising and recruiting, his White House could be the first to harness a meaningful grass-roots movement as an ongoing tool of governance.

The federal government itself is a far more potent instrument, in its breadth and depth of command over national life, than it has ever been before. Largely in response to the threat of terrorism, the Bush years and President Bill Clinton's two terms saw "an incredible period of state-building that's unrivaled in American history except by the creation of the national security state in the 1940s and '50s," said Jack Balkin, a professor of constitutional law at Yale whose blog, Balkinization, is often cited by members of the Obama team.

By necessity or design, and most often by passive acquiescence, Congress and the courts have let presidents do most of the steering of the new and expanded institutions that govern finance, commerce, communications, travel, energy production and especially intelligence gathering. When there were struggles for dominance among the three branches, most of them ended with lopsided victories for the executive.

The legislative power to declare war and ratify treaties, for example, has been deeply eroded by the practice of presidents to launch military operations on their own and to make major international commitments -- such as December's "status of forces" pact with Iraq -- by "executive agreement" rather than by treaty requiring a two-thirds Senate vote. After lengthy controversy over warrantless domestic surveillance in the Bush administration, Congress authorized the program without obtaining any details about what, exactly, is collected and how it is used.

"Really, in the last 80 years we've seen a gradual, and at times not gradual, concentration of power in the executive office," said William P. Marshall, who served as deputy White House counsel under Clinton.

Obama's style of governance will not be President George W. Bush's, but it may not differ quite as much as some supporters expect.

Bush defined his power as supremacy over Congress and courts, adopting Vice President Cheney's doctrine of unbounded freedom of action for the commander in chief and chief law enforcement officer. Eight years of legal and political combat have dealt setbacks to those claims, primarily regarding the detention and treatment of suspected terrorists.

Some Bush administration lawyers now maintain that the president's power has suffered because of it.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company