Obama Tilts Power Balance

President Uses His Authority

Posted March 30, 2009 at 6:33pm

President Barack Obama’s decision to effectively fire the CEO of General Motors is the latest sign that the new president is unafraid to wield power aggressively and act in ways that do not require Congress’ approval.

Though panned during the campaign as someone who lacked executive experience, Obama has moved decisively in areas such as rejecting GM and Chrysler restructuring plans, deploying 21,000 extra troops to Afghanistan, injecting nearly 1 trillion new dollars into the economy and his insistence on pressing ahead with his energy, education and health care priorities even as he tries to rescue the moribund economy.

Obama has directed Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner to take extraordinary actions to right the economy, including an initiative to team with private investors to remove “toxic assets— from the books of banks and claiming new powers to take over non-bank financial institutions.

The president has also moved swiftly to promulgate executive orders — which by definition need no Congressional approval — including one reversing former President George W. Bush’s policy limiting federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research.

“I think he’s been very strong — very definitive and very clear in what he intends to do and trying to do it,— said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who himself stopped just short of joining the administration as Commerce secretary.

Obama is not only taking bold steps, but he’s putting in place the infrastructure to implement them in ways that could minimize Congressional interference.

Obama has broadened the White House “czar system,— which features aides with broad purview over policy who do not report to Congress. New posts have been created for health care, climate change, urban affairs and the economy, all dropped on top of existing economic, domestic policy and environmental offices.

The White House is unapologetic.

“During his two months in office, President Obama has repeatedly taken decisive action to protect the interest of American taxpayers and American workers,— White House Deputy Press Secretary Joshua Earnest said. “These decisions, due to the historic nature of the current economic crisis, have often come under less-than-ideal circumstances, but in every instance, the president has and will continue to put the priorities of the American people first.—

But such actions also raise the question of whether the new president is seeking an “imperial presidency.— Democrats routinely bashed Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney for trying to amass too much power.

Vice President Joseph Biden in particular was critical of the Bush administration’s drive to enhance the power of the executive branch.

“His notion of a unitary executive, meaning that in time of war essentially all power, you know, goes to the executive, I think is dead wrong,— Biden said during a December appearance on ABC’s “This Week.— “I think it was mistaken. I think it caused this administration, in adopting that notion, to overstep its constitutional bounds, but at a minimum to weaken our standing in the world and weaken our security.—

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers from both parties say they’ve seen the strength — but some question whether the new president is coming on too strongly.

Obama has been acting as a strong executive, said Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the 2008 GOP presidential nominee. But McCain also panned Obama’s Congressional outreach.

“I do not know of a single instance of serious negotiation over a specific issue,— McCain said. “They simply don’t do it.—

But Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said Obama’s executive style is strong — and so is his outreach.

“I can’t believe how many times we have seen the president and vice president just in the last six weeks,— Nelson said. “He’s unbelievable.—

Some Congressional Democrats grumbled on Monday that Obama’s auto industry rescue plan was crafted with little input from them.

“They developed their plan,— one House Democratic leadership aide said. “There wasn’t input from us on it.—

Still, the aide said that the message of tough love for the automakers is what Members wanted to hear, given the bailout fatigue many are hearing in their districts.

“He’s trying to walk that line by saying, We want to help you out, we don’t want the auto industry to fail, but we’re not just going to give you taxpayer money because you are asking for it,’— the aide said.

That tough message could help lay the groundwork later if Obama needs to come back to Congress for additional authority to deal with the carmakers, the aide said.

Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), who is close to the automakers, was careful in a statement to praise the president, but nevertheless strongly suggested the 30-day deadline for Chrysler was too tight.

“I urge the Obama Administration to carefully review progress made by Chrysler at the end of April and give the company more time to complete its restructuring if needed,— Dingell said. “The fate of this major corporation, and the tens of thousands of workers employed by Chrysler and its suppliers, are too important to live or die by an arbitrary deadline for reaching an alliance with Fiat or another prospective partner.—

David M. Drucker and Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.