Barack Obama: The Imperilled President

According to the ‘Imperial President’ theory as put forward by Arthur M. Schlesinger, the office of President of the United States has been steadily and repeatedly accruing powers towards its own advancement. A modern president has increasing control over the federal bureaucracy, for instance, and his orders on extra-judicial matters are likely to be stronger now than they have been in a long time. The imperial president gains many of his powers in times of war; and as the United States has spent most of the last half-century fighting one war or another (in various guises), it is suggested that this has led to increasing powers for the presidency in our own times. But there is a flipside to this famous declaration: presidents may also eschew matters imperial, and instead of that particular moniker, they may have the sobriquet of ‘imperilled’ – in the words of Shakespeare’s Malvolio – ‘thrust upon ‘em’. Barack Obama is one such president.

In matters domestic Obama is greatly imperilled. Having lost control of both Houses of Congress in the 2014 Midterms, he is increasingly relegated to governing by Executive Order – as we can see in the recent presidential action on the matter of undocumented immigration, for example. To some this may look strong, almost imperial, but to others – those in the know – it seems as if the president, isolated in Washington, must resort to what looks like arbitrary and capricious measures in order to get his own way. Ted Cruz (or more likely one of his interns) butchered a famous speech by Cicero, which was originally written upon discovering the Cataline conspiracy in late Republican Rome, to taunt the president on this matter. Cruz said that he was speaking for all elected representatives (and the people of the United States) when he declaimed the following, annexed from ‘Tully’: ‘How long, O President Obama, will you continue to abuse our patience?’ The implication of this is two-fold; one of these implications strongly supports the idea of Obama as an imperilled president, merely content with frustrating or superseding the voice of the people – Congress is, after all, ‘the people’s branch’ – out of spite at his newfound weakness.

The other implication, though, is more favourable to the case that could be made to defend Obama of this charge: Cruz implies that Obama is abusing the patience of the Representatives gathered in Congress by passing them over in the legal process, but this is not the same as his acting out of spite or malice or a desire for vengeance spurred on by recent Democratic losses; rather, it could be seen merely as a sensible reaction to the paralysing influence of Republican hyper-partisanship, which has crippled the apparatus of federal decision-making by holding up Obama’s judicial appointments and stymieing his legislative calendar through the overuse of the Senator’s power to filibuster – Cruz himself is a prime example of this tendency among Republican Senators. This, it is therefore claimed, is nothing like the desperate actions of a weak man; instead, it can be seen as a sensible reaction to an over-enthusiastic opposition in Congress.

Plus, there is the small point of precedent here. Obama has, it seems, fallen into two traps which commonly befall presidents. He has found himself a victim to the usual presidential losses in Midterm elections, and he is also weaker in this, his second term (as US presidents are wont to be). That he conforms to a typology means that he cannot be an entirely uncommon example, and therefore this weakens the case for his being an imperilled president.

For the opposing case, however, there is strong and mounting evidence. Andrew Sullivan, an Anglo-American political commentator writing on the CIA torture revelations of last year, declared that ‘Obama’s cowardice is gobsmacking’ in his unwillingness to pick a side over the case as laid out by the Senate Committee against CIA practices of ‘enhanced interrogation’.

Obama’s apparent unwillingness to take on one of his own agencies – technically subsumed within, and under the control of, the federal government – demonstrates his weakness in domestic policy; a president who cannot criticise his nominal inferiors is almost by definition imperilled. If he himself is not diminished by this state of affairs – and plenty of journalists like Sullivan would argue that he is – then he is at the very least weakened by a government agency appearing to be beyond criticism, even from the President of the United States. In addition, and in direct contrast to his own words of last year – he famously declared that ‘we tortured some folks’ – Obama is evasive when using the word ‘torture’ in the context of the report. Such circumspection on a delicate but gargantuan issue of this type prompts the observer towards diagnosing moral weakness in the current president.

Obama is especially weak abroad; and his administration is particularly inactive and ineffective in the context of the wider world – a traditional strength of US presidents, who are deemed to be ‘Weak at home, strong abroad’. Obama manages, it seems, to be weak in both theatres, adding to his imperilment. In Ukraine, an ally of the United States is being invaded and fought in an undeclared war by a geopolitical adversary; Obama’s response to this has not been strong or particularly effective. Some analysts suggest – and I believe that it is true – that Obama’s weaknesses in Syria actually precipitated the events in Ukraine, for example, by his failure to: follow through with airstrikes on the Assad regime, degrading his own ‘red line’ in the process; aid and support moderate, western-friendly rebel groups in their fight against both Assad and the Islamic State, weakening the esteem in which the United States is held by all of her allies; and to stand up to Assad’s geopolitical backers, Iran and Russia, which might have collectively given President Putin of Russia the shot in the arm he needed to being covert combat in Ukraine.

Obama’s failure in bombing Assad was precipitated by his fear that he would lose the ensuing congressional vote; this fear of the elected representatives of the people speaks to presidential imperilment. His failure in supporting western-friendly rebels signifies a lack of presidential control over the actions of his agencies and his staff, and also the potential for the president himself to be either uninformed or uninterested in foreign policy issues; both of these contribute to the image of his weakness, leading to his becoming imperilled. And the aforesaid perception of weakness is what led to Putin’s newfound boldness in Eastern Europe (It is also worth nothing that, when compelled by the rapid rise of the Islamic State in Iraq to take offensive action, Obama avoided a Congressional vote entirely; he didn’t need one, but ‘it would have been nice’, according to David Frum.)

In summation, it can be seen that President Obama is weak at home, inactive abroad, ineffective the running of several important federal agencies and departments, and even unsuccessful in matters of foreign affairs, the area where Schlesinger suggested that presidents enjoy a certain strength. All of this testifies to his weakness, and thus the imperilled nature of his presidency.


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  1. Pingback: Past and Present: Writing About the Collapse of International Order | James Snell

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