Has Barack Obama Embraced the Unitary Executive?
by Ryan J. Barilleaux, Miami University of Ohio and Jewerl Maxwell, Gordon College
In 2008, Barack Obama attacked George W. Bush’s use of executive power. He faulted Bush for ignoring the civil liberties of terror suspects, circumventing Congress, and for centralizing power in the presidency. His supporters expected his presidency to be about constitutional restoration, but instead Obama embraced unilateral presidential action. Not only did he retain most of the security-related actions of the Bush presidency (the state secrets doctrine, targeted killings, warrantless wiretapping), but he went farther than his predecessor in some areas (e.g., drone strikes). He also employed unilateral powers in several domestic policy areas, to the consternation of his opponents and the confusion his supporters. Unilateralism became Obama’s preferred method for getting things done in Washington. This article places Obama’s use of executive power in the context of presidential unilateralism over the past four decades. It demonstrates that the transformation of Obama from candidate to chief executive both fits a long-term trend in the presidency and stretches unilateralism farther than his predecessors. Obama effectively embraced the principles of the unitary executive, and his legacy will be that of institutionalizing a nearly Gaullist presidency for his successor.