Has President Obama fulfilled his campaign promise to rein in executive power?

Eight years ago, Senator Barack Obama warned that the powers of the office he sought were being stretched beyond their constitutional limits: “The biggest problems that we’re facing right now have to do with George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all.” The editors of America echoed his concern in “Abuse of Office” (4/28/08).

Mr. Obama campaigned on a promise to reverse the excesses of the war on terror at home and abroad, which in the name of national security trampled on the rights of suspected enemies and U.S. citizens alike. Today, while some of the worst Bush-era abuses have been checked, President Obama evinces little discomfort exercising the executive powers amassed by his predecessor.

Torture. Within days of taking office, President Obama banned the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the Central Intelligence Agency’s euphemism for what amounted to a state-sanctioned program of torture. But whereas Mr. Obama’s break with the Bush administration’s illegal and immoral use of torture was swift and decisive, his commitment to transparency and accountability for these crimes has been lukewarm. It took a year for the Obama justice department to open an investigation into the C.I.A. program, which ended in 2012 without a single criminal charge. Since that time a summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture has only reinforced in gruesome detail the extent to which intelligence officials misled the White House and Congress about the brutality, efficacy and lawfulness of the agency’s harsh interrogation practices. International law requires that torture allegations be investigated and those responsible be prosecuted. Mr. Obama should appoint a special prosecutor to do so.

Signing statements. President Bush’s sweeping use of signing statements—letters attached to legislation to clarify, challenge or disregard Congressional intent—rightly earned the criticism of then-Senator Obama, who said he would not employ this tactic “as a way of doing an end-run around Congress.” While President Obama has been more sparing than his predecessor in his use of these statements, he, too, has used them to unilaterally reject parts of laws he sees as encroachments on his executive authority. In the face of a willfully obstructionist Congress, the president also made generous use of executive orders and presidential memoranda to achieve his own policy aims. Whatever one thinks of Mr. Obama’s actions on immigration reform or federal gun safety research, it is not a victory for the democratic process when a president sidesteps the legislature.

Domestic spying. President Obama showed little interest in rolling back the reach of the insatiable surveillance state before government contractor Edward Snowden leaked thousands of classified documents that revealed the National Security Agency’s indiscriminate monitoring of U.S. citizens. Even after the 2013 revelations, the Obama administration variously ignored, weakened or offered only grudging support to surveillance reform efforts. The resulting USA Freedom Act of 2015 technically ends the government’s bulk collection of telecommunications metadata and strengthens transparency and civil liberty protections at the notoriously government-friendly Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. It is unclear, however, to what extent the reforms will actually curtail mass surveillance or why the public should trust an agency that has consistently misrepresented the extent of its activities, even in Congressional hearings.

Habeas corpus. When the Supreme Court in 2008 granted Guantánamo detainees the right to challenge their detention, Senator Obama applauded the justices for “rejecting a false choice between fighting terrorism and respecting habeas corpus.” Today 89 prisoners remain. To be fair, lawmakers in Congress have obstructed the president’s efforts to close the military prison at every turn. But there have also been self-inflicted wounds. Mr. Obama has defended the use of military commissions, aggressively appealed habeas petitions and acknowledged that there are detainees “who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes…but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States.” The president’s latest doomed plan to shutter the prison camp, released in February, would therefore relocate the facilities but leave in place a fundamentally flawed system of indefinite detention.

If the executive oversteps of this president are not of the same scale or number as those of his predecessor, neither are they insignificant. In a tragic irony, the limited progress that has been made toward the president’s promises to end America’s wars and close Guantánamo Bay has come in no small part from Mr. Obama’s rapid expansion of a secretive drone war that has kept U.S. boots off the ground and enemy combatants out of our prisons. It is also a program that degrades the office of the presidency and is nothing less than an abuse of power.

William Rydberg
11 months 2 weeks ago
Sobering. The Republic is going to need to recheck USA political checks and balances, both Executive and Legislative if it expects to stay a Republic in a 100 years in my opinion... For some inexplicable reason, the American Catholic Intelligencia has come round to believing that "Sophistication" and "Civility" are the only checks that are required. It's as though the American Catholic Intelligencia in practice actually believe that concupiscence has no application to public life, government employees or even the highest office holders of the Republic. They have not kept their eye on the ball in my opinion. I wish that American Catholic Intellectuals took time to investigate their own History. This current seeming cognitive dissonance when it comes to American Public Life in my opinion is a variant of what one of the Pope (one of the Leo's I think) warned about... Bottom line, we are all flawed and we need Jesus-God come in the flesh. All American Catholic's need to access the gifts Jesus left us, Scripture, the Tradition, the Magisterium, Apostolic teaching as well as the truth of the Blessed Trinity. In my opinion, the American Catholic Intelligencia needs to do some work. Be Salt and Light ! But also, in my opinion, there are so many Vendus (SOLD!) in the American Catholic Intelligencia that are hooked on strings-attached federal monies, that they may not have the fortitude. 1 Thess 5:17. I personally, have been hoping for Bernie, but the task at hand of prudently assessing the American Political System and making prayerful recommendations to lawmakers (including the Supremes) concerning the Republic's governance will need all hands on deck. God bless the United States of America. Spread the Gospel, it's truly Good News! Just my opinion... in Christ, Blessed be the Holy Trinity...
11 months ago
I agree with the amicus brief filed on behalf of the USCCB et al.
Richard Booth
10 months 3 weeks ago
I am wondering if you still agree with the "Amicus" put forth by the bishops' organization, given their questionable wisdom in the well-known recent firing of an excellent, incisive, and introspective journalist. I wonder if anyone gave the man a hearing of his intent and thinking. I doubt it. Reminds me of the Church of the 50s, so I hear. When I see USCCB in print, I shudder to think what they have come up with now! I also wonder, as an aside, how Fr. Daniel Berrington and his brother were treated by their Jesuit superiors, colleagues, and the bishops for rocking their respective boats. I know Fr. Bernard Haring wasn't treated well by those who, in my view, should have "had his back." It is difficult to support the hierarchy and, by extension, their lawyer-driven "Amicus."
Bob Fauteux
11 months 2 weeks ago
I salute you for (a) recalling your strong April 2008 reservations about G. W. Bush's abuses of constitutional power and the magnitude of its impact and (b) your having seen fit to close your editorial with a paragraph on Obama's abuse in re his drone strategy. It is a shame, however, that you can't bring yourselves either, apparently, to see more clearly the extent of his abuses on issues in which you share positions (the several—and important ones—that your editorial reviews—and the environment, many aspects of health care, and immigration, say) and when his overreach harms constituencies about whose interests your agenda seems not to share (business's rights, for example, or the rights of people holding what have become in just a few years politically incorrect views). The constitutional erosion is furthered by both, of course, even given the ongoing failures of the Congress and President's—it's not a one-sided breakdown—to find a way to work together as the Constitution intended.
William deHaas
11 months 2 weeks ago
Sorry - there is no comparison between the two presidents and their use of executive orders. Your editorial is shocking given its simplistic viewpoint; lack of analysis; cursory comparisons; etc. IMO, the difference in the Congressional and Executive make up and deliberate Republican decisions to delay, hinder, and obstruct this properly voted on Presdient make a significant and powerful distinction between what Bush did and what Obama is doing now. If no other difference than that Obama uses executive orders as a last resort and only when Congress refuses to even consider proposals, recommendations, Democratic bills, etc. Bush did not even waste time with Congress - he just used executive orders. Data driven analysis which highlights the misplaced focus on this editorial - can one say, The Sky is Falling: http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/every-presidents-executive-actions-in-one-chart/ Thus, this editorial claims something that, in fact, happens less and less since the administration of FDR despite a more and more divisive Congress. One other point - there are differences in executive orders - some expand what Congress has already acted on and others push back or defy what Congress has NOT done. One could make a reasoned editorial comment that if a President fails to act, he has failed in his duty to the common good. Your singular focus on number of orders and possible scope of orders is a small part of the story - sad. Need to do your editorial homework before trying to prophesize.
Edward Alten
11 months 2 weeks ago

I agree with the overreach of power which corrupts our kind of government into a monarchy. Our democracy is an "experiment" in self government which is failing because the legislative has succumbed to self-interest and not the common good. I think it started when Eisenhower warned of the national industrial complex that would allow corporations formed by the war effort to control through money and power not only the economy but the election process. I see the work of the evil one in the succeeding in so many otherwise good people to convince them in the guise of patriotism to allow them to gain control wherever and by whatever means through lobbyists the financial power into an oligarchy.

We the people must rise up united for the common good in a peaceful revolt through the ballot box. The pope has asked us to be political in good ways and this is the best way available. This applies not only to a presidential candidate but to a congress whose aim is for the common good. I would ask that presidential candidate to identify those he can trust to form a task force of people who can reform our government. He should reveal that strategy to the voters as soon as he can so he will be elected by popular vote. This presidential candidate will also need voters to support identified common good oriented legislators both Democrats and Republicans who are also on the same page as he and his task force are.

This might be he last election we have to restore balance to our democracy experiment.
May God help us in this effort if it be His will.

Richard Booth
11 months 2 weeks ago
Although I disagree with your fundamental argument about President Obama's "overreach," I concur that your bullet points are important domains for serious discussion. I am thankful that the editorial staff of America magazine does not have to solve the overwhelming challenges, at home and abroad, that the president has no choice but to confront. Arm-chair "post hoc" critiques of how the Executive keeps America as safe as possible (i.e., the first task of the presidency) are commonplace, but the actual collection of intelligence and the uncovering and treatment of destructive extremists must be done either by humans or robots, which is a decision the president must ultimately make. To provide transparency about how this is done and where it is done may satisfy journalists, but it can all to easily become informative to the perpetrators we are attempting to halt. I agree, in principle, with your contention that the better method for dealing with these and many other matters would be to go through Congress. But, how many times does a sane person bang his head on a huge rock until he sees blood flowing and tries to move around the rock in legal ways? What I have written about is the tip of a very large iceberg and I cannot see beneath the sea. The president is aware of much more, including consequences for the decisions he makes. Criticizing him is covered by Amendment; however, criticizing without knowing the entirety of what he knows is questionable.
Edward Alten
11 months 2 weeks ago

I agree with the editorial but I would add the following comment. We need to re-balance and reform Government with our vote in November. If Catholic laity is to become more "political" as Pope Francis suggests then we as faithful Catholics should all vote for what certain presidential candidates have proclaimed as what they stand for and as a Catholic this would be for the common Good. I would pray that all Catholic Laity take Pope Francis' leadership to heart and vote their conscience regardless of the consequences to themselves just as Jesus did. God will take care of the practical aspects of this decision and guide our choice of president and legislators to do the right things for all.

Edward Alten

Mary Gillespie
11 months 1 week ago
I would like to agree with those who note that the editorial is overreach. It is fundamentally flawed in its assertion that the President is guilty of an abuse of power. We elected him. He has the right to exercise his presidential judgment (based on factual information provided to him by the heads of his departments). He has the fundamental need to make change even in the face of an intractable obstinate group of republican legislators who refuse to even negotiate those items you bring up. They refuse to acknowledge previous mistakes and they refuse to participate in government. Don't let them off the hook by complaining about the President. He has fixed as many things as he can. Groups like ALEC and the US Chamber of Commerce with the tacit ok of their local Catholic hierarchy have allowed the republicans to fundamentally change a democracy into an oligarchy. Why not talk about that. Why not talk about all the ill that has been done making public services that once were government programs into "for profit" businesses? Why not talk about all the wars started by republicans for which there was no public funding initiatives - they just robbed the coffers? Why mention Guantanamo in the context of this President who has tried so hard to shut it down and been shut out by the other party? If this sounds harsh - it's my frustration coming out. I have watched all Catholic attention swing republican since Reagan (and it was that era that ushered in trickle down economics and for profit services and outsourcing businesses globally without having any jobs programs to make up for the deluge of work that went overseas.)
Richard Booth
10 months 3 weeks ago
Totally agree with your assessment. It will be interesting to see how, if Mr. Trump wins the White House, the Catholic hierarchy will deal with him. Perhaps their hopes for a right-wing (if Trump is truly one of these) administration will have achieved success. Or, perhaps that administration will become one of their many nightmares. So much in the Church is political that it is difficult to pay any attention to whatever squabbling bishops have to say about much of anything. This appears to be what Apostolic Succession and our "shepherds" have come to. It is sad.
Robert Koch
11 months ago
I for one cannot wait until the day President Obama is out of office. Our choice for the next president also looks to be very regrettable. May God please help this nation, and please hurry.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Pope Francis said opportunity can come by restoring “the pillars” on which the union was first founded.
Gerard O'ConnellMarch 24, 2017
Some of the tensions still troubling Liberian life have deep social and historical roots.
Kevin ClarkeMarch 24, 2017
“This bill is catastrophic for Catholic social teaching and particularly for the people who we’re called to serve,” Sister Carol Keehan said.
Michael O'LoughlinMarch 24, 2017
Facing one’s clinginess, having to let go—it’s the last lesson, the real revelation of the ascension.
Jim McDermottMarch 23, 2017