Obama has been willing to push the bounds of executive power when it comes to making life-and-death decisions about drone strikes on suspected terrorists or instituting new greenhouse gas emission standards for cars.

But at other times he has been skittish. When immigration activists first urged him to halt deportations of many illegal immigrants, for instance, Obama said he didn’t have the authority to do so. He eventually gave in after months of public protest and private pressure from immigrant and Hispanic advocates, granting relief to certain people who had been brought to the United States as children.

And at key moments, Obama has opted against power plays. In the 2011 debt-ceiling fight, Obama ruled out unilaterally raising the country’s borrowing limit even though some constitutional scholars, as well as many of his political allies, believed doing so was well within his authority.

The president’s inconsistency is so befuddling that not even his critics can get it straight. They simultaneously charge that he is “leading from behind” and that he is displaying, in the words of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), “the arrogance of power.”