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Who Smashed the Green Lantern?

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Sam Tanenhaus has a piece about presidential war powers that helps me understand why he commissioned a review of a bio of Willie Mays that consisted mostly of nostalgic blubbering about the Brooklyn Dodgers and the horrors of relief pitching:

But Mr. Obama might also have been acknowledging something else: that he holds office at a time when the presidency itself has ceded much of its power and authority to Congress. His predecessors found this, too. Bill Clinton discovered it after the 1994 election, when Newt Gingrich, the architect of the Republican victory in the House, briefly seemed the most powerful politician in the land.

George W. Bush discovered it 10 years later when he claimed a mandate after his re-election, only to see two of his prized programs — privatizing Social Security and immigration reform — wither amid resistance in Congress.

To note the obvious:

  • This is the same as it ever was. There has never been a time in history where presidents routinely just rammed their policy preferences right down the throat of an unwilling Congress.  And, yes, that very much includes FDR.
  • Syria is a very strange example to use as a hook for an argument about declining presidential power.  The authority of presidents to make war (unlike their before-the-fact powers on domestic policy) have substantially increased over the last century, and Congress failing to go along on Syria wouldn’t actually be a good counterexample.  The Libya example strongly suggests that had Obama just unilaterally decided to launch cruse missiles at Syria he could have done so without Congress doing anything about it.  He chose to request congressional approval, therefore putting the power of inertia against his  policy rather than in favor of it — but the key words there are “he chose.”   It doesn’t really tell us anything about the power of modern presidents to order military strikes.
  • If the decline in presidential power is supposed to be that Obama couldn’t just force Congress — including the house controlled by the other party — to go along, again there’s no actual change in presidential powers happening.

I’m not sure why the Times didn’t just go directly to Drew Westen if it wanted this terrible argument made again.

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