There are still many unknowns about how Barack Obama will govern when he takes office later this month, but one thing is clear: Obama will have enormous power.
The economic crisis has literally changed the rules of government. The executive branch has overseen an injection of trillions of public funds into the private sector — and without admitting it, has essentially conceded that American-style capitalism, which has been viewed as holy writ by economists, journalists, academics and politicians for 30 years, is not sustainable.
As a result, the Obama administration’s first six months will be dominated with plans for a massive (though many say, not massive enough) $850 billion stimulus plan that, while not yet fully crafted, will involve a major public works project, large amounts of aid to state governments – most of which are running large deficits and are in or near recession — increased aid to homeowners and endless other possibilities for major reform and ambitious programs.
Obama is also taking the reigns of two wars and the largest military in the history of humanity just as the country faces complicated geopolitical conflicts in India, Pakistan, Palestine, Israel, Africa, Lebanon and elsewhere.
While few presidents aspire to take office while the country is in war, the economy is sputtering and the quality of life for Americans is expected to decrease dramatically, it does give the president enormous power.‚ “You never want serious crisis to go to waste,’” said Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.
But what Obama makes of the opportunity remains to be seen. Obama has continued to trump the idea that his recovery package will serve the interests of “Main Street” as well as Wall Street; however, like all U.S presidents, Obama was put into office with the help of elite, moneyed interest – he received more money from the finance sector than any other candidate in presidential history.‚ ‚ And despite his rhetoric of helping out the regular guy, Obama, while in the stretch run of the 2008 campaign, elected to support a $700 billion bailout to the financial sector which was opposed by virtually the entire population and, unlike packages implemented by other developed nations struggling with recession, was practically toothless in regulating these businesses and in limiting executive pay.
On the other hand, Obama could implement something akin to a new “New Deal” which could shape American governance for decades.‚ He has amassed a mountain of good will from his supporters, as well as the media; and a weakened Republican party will be unable to kill most of his proposals, as the electorate is yearning for wide scale changes.
So many are left to wonder what Obama’s first six months in president will look like. Here, we seek to assess the possibilities. But before we do so, it is important to understand the ebb and flow of the power structure of the federal government. For it is not only the economic crisis that has afforded Obama such immense power, but also and eight-year campaign to expand the power of the executive branch by the office of his predecessor.
The precedent of power
During the last few years of George W. Bush’s presidency many speculated power the executive branch would be diminished when a transfer of power took over.‚ Bush went as far as any president in recent history – maybe ever – in expanding the power of the executive branch.
His unrivaled use of signing statements, which undermined legislation behind the scenes in lieu of making a far more visible veto, were condemned by legal groups and politicians alike. In his first six years a Republican-controlled Congress, gave him a blank check on foreign policy issues: torture, wiretapping, rendition, troop escalations and unconditional funding for two brutal military campaigns. When the Democrats took over in 2006, things did not change much; Democrats continued to fund the war in Iraq and refused to prosecute executive branch officials for their clear abuse of powers.