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Obama immigration order: Does 'audacity of hope' mean unchecked presidential power?

President Obama’s order deferring deportation of up to 800,000 young illegal immigrants shows a president dealing with a recalcitrant Congress by ignoring it. Is he reshaping the power of the presidency?

By Patrik JonssonStaff writer / June 16, 2012

"Right to Dream" students and supporters block the street outside the federal Metropolitan Detention Center Friday in Los Angeles to celebrate the Obama administration's decision to stop deporting younger illegal immigrants.

Nick Ut/AP

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Faced with a Republican Congress that seems stubborn to a fault and content to see Obama fail, America’s chief executive has decided to grab what some are calling an unprecedented rein on executive prerogative in order to move his political objectives down the field.

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His supporters say it’s part of the President’s “audacity of hope” campaign message, exemplified by Friday’s decision to relax immigration rules for young illegal immigrants – a necessary antidote, supporters contend, to political polarization, stalemate, and gridlock in Washington.

As with other Obama decisions to ignore parts of the Defense of Marriage Act, not prosecute medical marijuana, and allow some states to opt out of No Child Left Behind provisions, the immigration order became perhaps the boldest decision yet by a president seeking reelection, critics say, to ignore laws passed by Congress in order to achieve a political objective, setting a troubling precedent for the power of the presidency.

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In some ways, it’s part of the evolution of an “imperial Presidency,” a term used by historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  to describe Richard Nixon’s challenges to traditional checks and balances. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, also used a broad definition of presidential power to issue so-called signing statements where he declared parts of new laws unconstitutional and thus unenforceable by the commander-in-chief.

But whereas Bush reserved most of those powers for issues of national defense in wartime, Obama has expanded the president’s power into issues that are live wires in America’s political and cultural battlefields – gay marriage, marijuana, education, immigration – while reshaping the powers of the Oval Office in his wake. At some point, critics say, the question becomes: Who can check the President?

“This isn’t about immigration but about constitutional order,” says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative-leaning think tank. “One problem is that even Democrats in Congress now have no right to complain about future usurpations – they might as well all go home and have Napoleon run the country.”

In his Saturday address, President Obama hinted at the forces that are pushing him to take what some are calling extreme measures to govern. While he said Republican recalcitrance is a reason to vote in November, he also hinted that the political situation is forcing his hand as an executive. “There’s no excuse for Congress to stand by and do nothing while so many families are struggling – none,” Obama said.

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