WaPo has an interesting piece that explores why in some cases, the President has been an Uber-commander in Chief (essentially following the role of GWBush), and in others, he has merely voted present.
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.
Larry Tribe–who in the past has come to the President’s rescue on a number of criticisms–even notes this inconsistent application of executive power:
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.”
LOL. Acting like a constitutional lawyer is an insult.
And this constitutional lawyer refused to rely on his powers under the 14th Amendment during the debt ceiling crisis (no trillion dollar platinum coins!)
Many Democrats believed Obama should have used his executive authority to lift the debt ceiling — a move advocates argued was legal under the 14th Amendment. Former president Bill Clinton said at the time he would have invoked that authority and “force the courts to stop me.”
Even the threat of invoking the 14th Amendment would have neutralized the GOP’s leverage, many felt. And yet Obama, believing such a move to be unconstitutional, ruled out the idea. White House aides said it was not only illegal, but also impractical for the president to take such a drastic step.
William Howell, a University of Chicago political scientist, cites the episode as a low point for Obama in a new book titled, “Thinking About the Presidency: The Primacy of Power.”
“He may have been right on his concerns about constitutionality, but it was costly,” Howell said. “There was a sense of executive impotence in a heightened moment of crisis.”
Of course, he pushed forward with the ACA, despite constitutional concerns–though at the time, those concerns were far flung off the wall. As I discuss in Unprecedented, it was the President’s determination to complete his “legacy” that motivated him to pass the ACA at all costs, with the full weight of the White House behind it.