Wait a minute: Didn’t liberals spend a decade blasting Dick Cheney’s claims that the president had “monarchical notions of prerogative”? Didn’t conservatives, who now denounce the “imperial presidency,” defend its right to use “enhanced interrogation techniques” without congressional approval? It’s all enough to give hypocrisy a bad name. The steps we propose are all authorized by law. None would be secret. When Obama oversteps, as in his defense of the NSA spying program, he will be called to account by Congress, courts, and the public—and he should.
But it should not require a defense of torture, or torturing the Constitution, to see that the president is well within his authority to act when he can. All public officials have a duty to try to advance the public good. None of these modest proposals will magically transform Washington, unfreeze Congress, or upend so many of the problems facing our political system. That still requires good old-fashioned legislation or new rulings from the Supreme Court—and perhaps a new justice or two. But like many second-term presidents, Obama is discovering that he has many powerful tools at his disposal to make progress toward his goals. He should apply them to our broken democracy. That would be the best vindication of what Alexander Hamilton, writing in the Federalist Papers, said would inevitably be a key source of strength: “energy in the executive.”