POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 1, 2014
COLUMBUS, Ga. » Republicans, poised for strong gains in the midterm elections, are offering starkly conflicting messages about President Barack Obama to rally their voters. In one moment, they say the president is feckless and weak. But in the next, they say Obama is presiding over an "imperial presidency" that is exercising power that verges on dictatorial.
So far, they are succeeding in having it both ways.
Rep. Paul Broun, R-Ga., who has criticized Obama for "leading from behind" on foreign policy, stood before a gathering of Republican women here recently, his voice loud and deliberate, as he raced through a long list of areas where he said the Obama administration has veered "totally out of control" — the health care law, Internal Revenue Service treatment of conservative groups and the National Security Agency's surveillance program, to name a few.
As the crowd murmured its assent, Broun, who is running for his party's Senate nomination, reached into his black blazer and pulled out the pocket-size Constitution he always carries.
"They're a symptom of a government that has just totally left the bounds of our U.S. Constitution," he said, "and the solution is putting this government back on the course that our founding fathers gave us in the U.S. Constitution."
If Republicans have a rallying cry heading into the 2014 midterm elections, it is their unified anthem against Obama's "imperial presidency" — a two-word, bumper sticker-ready slogan that encapsulates their criticisms about government overreach through Obama's prolific use of executive actions.
The phrase is part of an effort by Republicans to nationalize a series of concerns about the Obama White House, and the role of government, into a pithy, compelling expression. The "imperial presidency" mantra not only captures existing voter frustration over the health care reform and turns it, Republicans believe, into a broader referendum on the president's entire administration, but also reflects an underlying conservative philosophy about the appropriate role of government.
"This is a real concern for a lot of people," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner. "It's important to be able to show that we're doing everything possible to hold the president accountable for those people who believe the president is overstepping his constitutional authority."
Or as Barry Loudermilk, a former state senator who is running for the Republican nomination in Georgia's 11th Congressional District, explained before a campaign event in Powder Springs, Ga., "I think that the term 'imperial' is kind of descriptive enough that it resonates."
"They've been seeing this migration toward — a dictatorship is too strong a word, because we're not to that point — but an administrative state where the government is being run through policymaking instead of laws," Loudermilk said.
The message is one that motivates the conservative base, whose energy is vital in midterm elections when overall turnout is lower. In early March, House Republicans devoted a legislative week to Obama's "imperial presidency," introducing several bills intended to curb what they view as his administrative overreach. And the phrase has been popping up in conservative blogs, as well as in emails from top Republicans, especially after the president used his State of the Union address to promise to use his "pen and phone" to circumvent Congress through executive actions whenever possible.
Republicans have largely pounced on Obama's decision to delay certain parts of his signature health care law as evidence that he views himself as above the law. But they also point to an array of other areas in which they believe the president is acting outside his governing mandate - his 2012 decision to stop enforcing some of the existing immigration laws pertaining to young unauthorized immigrants and his directive to the Environmental Protection Agency to devise and issue rigorous carbon regulations on an aggressive timetable, among others.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University who has testified before Congress on the issue of executive power, said that while the phrase "imperial presidency" dates back to President Richard Nixon, the Obama and second Bush administrations "have really challenged the assumptions of the framers" of the Constitution.
"President Obama has aggregated power in the executive branch to a degree most thought would have been practically impossible," he said.
Concerns about Obama's big government agenda and "imperial presidency" are a common refrain at town meetings in Republican districts, Republican lawmakers and aides said.
"This is what we hear about all the time when we're back in our districts," said Rep. Razl R. Labrador, R-Idaho. "They're concerned that you have a president who has decided to violate the law, who has decided to not comply with certain laws, that he decides which laws he will execute and which laws he will not execute."
The White House says Republicans are walking contradictions, accusing Obama of behaving imperialistically while simultaneously criticizing him for being a weak leader, especially on foreign policy. In a statement on the current crisis with Russia, Broun said, "The president has portrayed himself as weak, and that's part of the reason we are facing this current situation in Ukraine."
But the administration also argues that the president has little choice but to use executive authority in such a polarized political climate.
"Our view is there are things we want to pursue with Congress and there's progress we want to make on our own, and the president is going to use whatever levers he can within government to do that," said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director. "We don't see a political downside to it."
In a conservative state like Georgia, however, the rhetoric that helped give rise to the original Tea Party movement in 2010 — an emphasis on the Constitution and returning the country to the original intentions of the founding fathers — is making a resurgence.
"I think the biggest danger our government is facing right now is they're undermining the Constitution," said Melanie Adams, 51, a Loudermilk supporter. The president, she added, "is assuming powers not granted to him, and without a system of checks and balances, we will fall into anarchy and despotism."
Rep. Eric Cantor, the majority leader, recently released an addendum to a 33-page report his office had already put out on the "imperial presidency." And both Broun and Loudermilk used similar phrases when talking about the role they believe government should play.
"Our founding fathers truly believed that government should be a government of the people, by the people and for the people — not a government over the people," Broun told a gathering of supporters recently.
The day before, Loudermilk offered a nearly identical refrain: "This is a government that is of the people, not a government over the people," he told supporters. "That's the mentality that a lot of Washington has."
The "imperial presidency" message has also been good for fundraising. A recent email by the National Republican Congressional Committee warned, "Barack Obama thinks he's above the law and can do anything he wants with the help of his friends, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid."
Then the email moved in for the kill: "Contribute $100, $50, $25 or what you can so that we can continue to defend Americans from Obama's power grabs and massive government overreach."
Ashley Parker, New York Times