A little hors d’oeuvre to whet your appetite for tomorrow night’s “do what I want or I’ll do it myself” threat to Congress. Lefty Greg Sargent is crowing that this poll result proves that GOP accusations of “tyranny” in O’s uses and abuses of executive power are doomed to go nowhere politically. It’s hard to convince the public that the president’s a tyrant, after all, when 52 percent think he’s justified in acting as he has. Er, okay, but we live in interesting times if a pattern of dubious presidential action can be blithely dismissed with “well, the public’s not too upset about it.” Is it tyrannical or isn’t it? The answer doesn’t depend on polling.

But don’t take a conservative’s word for it:

“It’s really the character of the actions, and their subject,” says Jonathan Turley, a constitutional scholar at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “In my view, Obama has surpassed George W. Bush in the level of circumvention of Congress and the assertion of excessive presidential power. I don’t think it’s a close question.”…

“President Obama meets every definition of an imperial presidency,” says Turley, who notes that he voted for Obama. “He is the president that Richard Nixon always wanted to be.”

[W]hen he was asked directly about the delayed employer mandate in a New York Times interview last July, Obama didn’t argue for the legality of his moves or raise the precedent of the rollout of Bush’s drug plan. Instead, he lashed out at his critics.

“There’s not an action that I take you don’t have some folks in Congress who say that I’m usurping my authority,” Obama said. “Some of those folks think I usurp my authority by having the gall to win the presidency.”

Another law prof interviewed for the piece quoted above was astounded that Obama would defend his executive actions in such personal terms, without even the pretense of a legal justification. And yet, like Sargent says, the public approves, which apparently is the end of the matter.

Question, though: Does it approve? There are two problems with polling executive authority: An intelligent answer requires a handle on basic civics, which is a tall order for some low-information voters, and the question itself risks eliding the difference between proper and improper uses of that authority. E.g., WaPo’s question was worded this way: “Presidents have the power in some cases to bypass Congress and take action by executive order to accomplish their administration’s goals. Is this approach something you [favor or oppose]?” You could ask a similar question about Congress this way: “Some critics say Congress should do more to assert its power over war. Do you agree or disagree?” If that question is asked in the context of a national debate over whether Congress should have the sole power to declare war rather than look the other way at presidentially ordered “interventions,” then agreeing is defensible. If instead the context is a national debate over whether Congress should have the power to command troops in the field, then agreement is not so defensible. But if your civics education is thin and you’re unaware of the specific policy context in which such a vague question is asked, there’s no telling how you’ll process a question like that. In fact, WaPo’s question is especially problematic in that it’s … not actually a question. They assert that presidents do have the power to bypass Congress and then simply ask whether that power should be exercised. Rephrase it to note that some legal scholars think Obama’s gone rogue to a degree that would shame Nixon and see what they think then.

Go fogure that when a “question” remains as broadly open to interpretation as this one, voters fall back on partisanship:


Naturally it’s the liberals, the most zealously anti-Bush partisans of the last decade, who sneered at Dubya for acting like “King George” with his assertions of executive power, who are deepest in the tank for King Barack. The other traditional elements of Obama’s base are also in the tank, of course. Pay special attention to the second graph:


If my theory is right that you need some foundation in basic civics to make a reasoned judgment on separation of powers and legislating in a democracy, we should probably see support for O’s power grabs decline as educational levels increase. We don’t. Of the four demographics here, postgrads are the second-most likely to say that Obama can “bypass” Congress. I think they know better; they certainly would if President Romney was suspending mandates and moving statutory deadlines willy nilly. They’re just mostly lefty hacks who hate that the Republican House won’t rubber-stamp Obama’s agenda, so they feel obliged to rubber-stamp his power grabs instead. Why we should celebrate that there’s enough of them to form a slim overall majority on this question, I have no idea. But yes, it may well be true that the GOP’s “tyranny” charges are a dead end politically — simply because there are too many people who don’t care if they’re true or not.