President Obama

Constitutional Aspirations and Executive Actions

Louis Fisher

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama spoke often about his constitutional principles. In particular, he objected to George W. Bush’s claim to certain “inherent” presidential powers that could not be checked by Congress or the judiciary. After his inauguration, how did President Obama’s constitutional principles fare? That is the question Louis Fisher explores in this book, a disturbing and timely study of the tension between constitutional aspirations and executive actions in the American presidency.

A constitutional scholar, Fisher views Obama’s two terms within the context of other presidencies, and in light of the principles set forth by the Framers. His work reveals how the basic system of checks and balances has been substantially altered by Supreme Court decisions, military initiatives, and scholarship promoting the power of the president—and by presidents progressively more inclined to wield that power. In this analysis we see the steps by which Obama, himself an expert on the Constitution, came to press his agenda more and more aggressively through executive actions: on climate change, renewable energy, the auto industry bail-out, education initiatives, and financial reform. Rather than focus on policy, Fisher examines the politics and practical concerns that drive executive overreach, as well as the impact of such expanded powers on bipartisan support, public understanding, and finally, the functioning of government.

“Lou Fisher is among our most highly regarded scholars of American political institutions and constitutional law. His most recent book, President Obama: Constitutional Aspirations and Executive Actions, illustrates why this is so. Fisher’s focus on President Obama’s propensity for unilateral governance captures the contradictions between, on the one hand, Obama’s statements respectful of constitutional limitations on executive authority and of the lawmaking responsibilities of Congress and, on the other hand, his frequent resort to unilateral executive behavior in the absence of congressional assent. Fisher’s deep case law knowledge demonstrates how the courts often have been complicit in allowing discretionary presidential authority where there may be little basis for it. Readers may come to different judgments as to why presidents exercise discretionary authority when there are few or nonexistent constitutional grounds for doing so. Fisher’s book contributes greatly to this debate, even if it does not bring closure to it.”

—Bert A. Rockman, professor emeritusof political science, Purdue University

“A revealing and learned manuscript by one of America’s finest scholars of constitutional government. It sparkles with interpretations and critiques of the relevant literature and of the many Supreme Court cases that impact this most important of subjects. It is certain to be read and debated by scholars and citizens interested in the legacy of President Obama’s administration.”

—Joel D. Aberbach, Distinguished Research Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, University of California, Los Angeles

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A fair but critical assessment of Obama’s executive performance and legacy, this sobering book documents the erosion of constitutional principles that prepared the way for the presidency of Donald Trump.

About the Author

Louis Fisher is scholar in residence at The Constitution Project in Washington, DC, and visiting scholar at the William and Mary Law School. From 1970 to 2010 he served in the Library of Congress as senior specialist in separation of powers at Congressional Research Service and specialist in constitutional law at the Law Library. His many books include Constitutional Conflicts between Congress and the President, Sixth Edition, Revised; Presidential War Power, Third Edition, Revised; Military Tribunals and Presidential Power, winner of the Richard E. Neustadt Award; and Supreme Court Expansion of Presidential Power, all from Kansas.