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Tyrant or Weakling? Asking the Wrong Questions about Obama and Ukraine

In congressional hearings last month, House Republicans condemned President Obama as a “king” threatening to bring dictatorship to the United States. They described Obama’s domestic policy actions as “executive overreach,” insisting that he had overstepped his authority by making changes to the way the Affordable Care Act is implemented or deferring deportation of undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

Republicans are right to insist on the need for limits on presidential power (though I have argued that the particular examples of “overreach” they cite are red herrings). When it comes to foreign policy and national security, however, Republicans criticize President Obama for being too weak.

There is some dissonance here, to put it mildly. As Dana Milbank observed, Republicans seem to see Obama as a “feckless tyrant.” They also seem to be suggesting that it is important to limit presidential power at home, but not abroad. This view may draw on the misconceived “sole organ” doctrine, which is incorrectly cited to justify the claim that presidents have inherent, plenary power over foreign affairs. The Constitution says otherwise, however—it divides these powers between the president and Congress. The framers decisively broke with the then-prevailing British model, which assigned most power over external affairs to the king. The U.S. Constitution, of course, does not provide for a king. It created a president who would share war power and foreign policy responsibilities with Congress.

In reacting to the crisis in Ukraine, Republicans have forgotten their concerns about setting limits on presidential power. They complain that Obama’s problem is that he’s not tough enough—that he’s being “weak and indecisive” when it comes to Ukraine—in contrast with Putin, who is “running circles around us.” That is a mistake. It is essential to emphasize limits on presidential power, but those limits must apply in all contexts—not just when it comes to domestic policy. 

The historical record—including quite recent events—shows that presidents (including Obama) are quite capable of overreaching when it comes to foreign affairs and national security.


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Republican (and some Democratic) members of Congress recognized the need to set limits on presidential power when they quite properly and effectively changed President Obama’s planned course of action  in Syria last summer. The same principle should apply with regard to Ukraine:  Congress’s participation in making policy is essential, and the decisionmaking process cannot be monopolized by the president.

The solution to the crisis in Ukraine is not for President Obama to act more like Putin. Under the Constitution, members of Congress share responsibility with the president to make foreign policy and address national security concerns. Suggesting that Obama alone bears this burden may be politically attractive, as it allows Republican members of Congress to dodge their constitutional responsibilities, but it is a mistake. Do Republicans really want to cede power to the president in this area? 

It’s natural to want a simple, straightforward solution here. Turning to the president (deceptively) seems to offer one. In times of crisis, people may instinctively want to place their trust in one person who can make hard decisions and (they hope) get them right. As Rudy Giuliani recently declared: “[Putin] makes a decision and he executes it, quickly.  And then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader.” That, however, is not the model the framers of the Constitution envisioned, and it is not the model we should seek today—unless we’re comfortable with the idea of autocracy (and, by the way, not all quick decisions are necessarily good ones). Democratic self-government requires more—and Congress’s institutional role in upholding the rule of law through checks and balances certainly requires more than deferential trust in the ability of one person to wield power effectively and prudently.

The reality is that there are no easy answers here. That’s hardly a surprise. Decisions involving national security and foreign policy are fraught with risk. It’s easy to make mistakes, especially when it comes to war power. The framers of the Constitution understood this, and, accordingly, created a system designed to avoid the concentration of power in any one branch. It is Congress’s responsibility to keep faith with that system today.

This piece first appeared on the American Consitution Society blog and republished here with permission.

Chris Edelson

Chris Edelson is an assistant professor in American University's School of Public Affairs, Department of Government, where he teaches classes on constitutional law. He's also a lawyer and has published writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Washington Lawyer, Common Dreams,, and Metroland (Albany, NY).

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