About 30 students gathered Sept. 18 in Penick Academic Complex D-53 for a lecture which centered on the actions and policies of President Barack Obama. The lecture was titled “An Imperial Presidency?: Unilateral Decision Making and Constitutional Limits” and was hosted by the political science department in honor of Constitution Week.
Sean Evans, associate professor of political science and department chair, opened the lecture by placing some of President Obama’s controversial actions, such as the bombing of Libya and the legalization of medical marijuana, in context with the unilateral decisions of other presidents throughout history.
Many presidents have “gone it alone” after taking office, Evans said, especially when approval ratings are low or when Congress is gridlocked. However, President Obama’s number of unilateral actions since taking office is far higher than that of previous presidents, he said.
Evans listed several examples of what he considers questionable uses of power. He said President Obama gave Secretary of Education Arne Duncan the power to waive requirements for the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Now that the goals set by the legislation have not been met, Evans said Duncan is waiving the penalty fee for states only if they adopt certain reforms.
In another example, Evans cited President Obama’s memorandum Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which he said allows people who immigrated illegally as children to remain in the United States and provides them with renewable two-year work permits.
Evans said by enacting this supposedly temporary policy change, which Congress rejected, President Obama effectively rewrote the law.
“What Republican in his right mind is going to take away the protections of up to five or six million illegal residents when … the Latino population is the second largest racial demographic in the country?” Evans said
Evans concluded by asking if the government’s system of checks and balances will become ineffective if President Obama continues bypassing traditional legislative methods in this way.
Micah Watson, assistant professor of political science, said many objections to President Obama’s administration rise from his deviation from the Constitution.
Watson used an analogy of babysitting rowdy children to describe the Constitution’s delegated powers. Making a list of things the children can do will be much more effective than trying to list all the things they cannot do, he said.
“If it’s not in [the Constitution], in theory the government’s not supposed to be able to do it,” Watson said.
Watson said the Constitution contains only 223 words about what the president can do.
However, he also cited an argument by Christian author James Skillen that the original Constitution is outdated and does not allow for the strong governance the nation has come to require.
“Does the United States need a new Constitution?” Watson asked. “The Constitution is not a sacred document.”
Greg Ryan, assistant professor of political science, examined President Obama’s authority, or lack thereof, to authorize action against ISIS.
Only Congress has the power to initiate war unless an imminent threat to the United States exists, Ryan said, although “this hasn’t stopped presidents since Truman” from getting involved.
Ryan said ISIS does not pose such a direct threat, unlike al Qaeda, with which its relationship is “not rosy.” Based on its own writings, ISIS is currently more interested in consolidating its own land and powers than in planning a strike on New York, Ryan said.
Ryan examined four possible precedents for President Obama’s actions, including former president George W. Bush’s 2002 national security strategy and his post 9/11 authorization against al Qaeda. All these actions are “dubious” as precedents, Ryan said.
He encouraged students not to allow the international conflict that has spanned most of their lives to become background noise.
“I think people should be asking a lot more questions,” Ryan said.