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Will Obama ‘deimperialize’ the presidency?

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

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“With his promise to close Guantánamo and the Holder nomination, he has made the right noises rhetorically that may be difficult to back away from,” says Gene Healy, a vice president at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

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“But I think it’s really unlikely that even with the best of intentions that Barack Obama is going to meaningfully deimperalize the presidency,” he adds.

Conventional wisdom holds that no branch of government gives up powers once acquired.

“It’s one thing to campaign against excessive executive power and it’s another to give it away once you have it,” says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.

“It’s still questionable whether he will make the effort to undo what President Bush has done, especially when Democrats control both houses of Congress,” he adds.

So far, Democratic leaders aren’t tipping their hand on how quickly — or if at all — they will push back on executive claims of power.

But Senate majority leader Harry Reid has signaled that the vice president will not be invited to attend weekly Democratic caucus lunches. It’s a sign that as vice president, former Sen. Joseph Biden won’t have the clout with the Democratic caucus that Vice President Cheney wielded with Republicans.

“There may be times when administration officials may be invited to attend, but these are member-only lunches,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for the majority leader.

Some civil libertarian groups say they are cautiously optimistic that the Obama campaign rhetoric will produce changes in how the White House asserts executive power.

“Obama is a constitutional scholar. He’s also the first senator to be elected since [Lyndon] Johnson. That might give him a somewhat different attitude on how he interacts with the legislative branch,” says Caroline Fredrickson, director of the Washington Office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

“We’re going to make a big push for Congress to put some boundaries on where the state secrets doctrine can be asserted,” she adds. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts is ramping up legislation on this issue.

“The problem is that when a president gets this power, his highly trained and highly priced lawyers around him are going to be urging him to preserve that power,” said Senator Feingold.