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Will Obama ‘deimperialize’ the presidency?

He has criticized Bush’s attempts to trump Congress, especially on war issues.

By Staff writer / December 31, 2008

Power at the top: President-elect Barack Obama has criticized what many see as President Bush’s overruling of congressional actions.

Hugh Gentry/Reuters



As a US senator and presidential candidate, Barack Obama routinely criticized the accretion of presidential power during the Bush years.

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But in the run-up to assuming the presidency himself, the president-elect has gone silent on whether he would roll back powers claimed during the Bush years – or support congressional efforts to do so.

The president does not have the constitutional right to trump laws of Congress when he deems it necessary, he said on the campaign trail.

When asked, then-Senator Obama said that he would not use signing statements to subvert the intent of congressional laws – a device used by President Bush to challenge hundreds of points of law. Nor would he challenge congressional limits on the deployment of US forces abroad.

“As president, I will not assert a constitutional authority to deploy troops in a manner contrary to an express limit imposed by Congress and adopted into law,” he said in a Dec. 20, 2007 interview with The Boston Globe, circulated by the transition team.

As a US senator, he introduced a resolution (S.J. Res. 23) that stated that “any offensive military action taken by the United States against Iran must be explicitly authorized by Congress.”

But some civil libertarians say that the precedents of the Bush years are so threatening to a constitutional balance of powers that Obama should act swiftly in the new administration to restore that balance.

“The countless abusive policies of the past eight years and the extreme legal theories on which they were based have left our nation weaker and our constitutional framework in a precarious position,” said Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin in a Dec. 10 letter to the president-elect.

“In light of this recent history, I believe that one of the most important things that you can do as president is to take concrete steps to restore the rule of law in this country,” he added. “I am sure that as a constitutional scholar you can appreciate that we must ensure that the Bush administration’s views of executive supremacy do not become so ingrained in our system of government that they become the ‘new normal’.”

Some of these issues will need to be resolved by the courts and the Congress. But civil libertarians in and out of the Congress say that the Obama administration could signal a change of course by making restoring the rule of law a key point in his Inauguration Address.

The new administration could also draft executive orders reversing Bush era policies and procedures on issues ranging from separation of powers and excessive government secrecy to domestic surveillance and the treatment of detainees.

With his choice of Eric Holder – a deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration and an outspoken critic of Bush-era claims of executive power – as nominee for attorney general, Obama has sent early signals that he’s serious about abuse of power issues.