Will Obama change course? (1/11/2009)

Barack Obama faces two wars and a faltering economy. But his greatest challenge involves resisting the temptations of the Imperial Presidency.

Fresh from a presentation at the New York Historical Society, where I talked about Alexander Hamilton and presidential power in a room where John Quincy Adams spoke some 175 years ago, I look at a new calendar year and a new administration, mindful of old themes and forebodings and filled with hope that President Barack Obama will meet the high expectations of the Framers of the Constitution and the American people. Few doubt Obama’s intelligence, talent and political skills. What remains, with respect to the exercise of the powers of the office, is whether he can resist temptation.

The temptation to abuse power is an old story. The Framers nursed on the teachings of Lord Acton: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. They were particularly worried about executive usurpation and corruption, and carved into the Constitution the menacing power of impeachment, a means to bring an errant president to heel. They worried about the president’s susceptibility to bribery, his flirtation with treasonous conspiracies and his lust for power and fame at the expense of constitutional parameters. Still, they proceeded with the invention of the presidency.

They were right to worry. American history reveals a long stretch of presidential abuse of power, a steady run over the past half-century at parchment barriers designed to restrain the executive but which, lamentably, have been no match for presidents spurred by a powerful combination of arrogance, certainty and disregard for constitutional government. Indeed, the Imperial Presidency, fueled in the beginning by Cold War fears, and refueled more recently by manipulation of anxieties brewed in the War on Terror, has become the defining feature of our political system. From Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, this is the road we are traveling. Whether it becomes America’s legacy depends on the behavior of Obama.

Obama has the capacity to stem the tide of executive abuse of power, particularly in matters of war and peace and national security. But has he the will?

As he assumes office in a perfect storm of international and domestic crises, Obama may well be tempted to usurp power to meet the exigencies that convulse our nation. He may be encouraged in this assertion by partisan supporters and advocates of broad executive powers. But if he wishes to restore the presidency to its constitutional moorings, and revivify the Framers’ hopes, he will need to embrace the virtues of humility and self-abnegation.

Incorporation of these virtues will not make Obama a weak leader, for he can properly exert influence and leadership by exhorting Congress to assume its responsibilities and exercise its powers rather than acquiescing in executive usurpation. That would be a signal accomplishment, and a fitting epigraph for America.

Adler is a political science professor at Idaho State University who has written and lectured on the presidency and the Constitution.