Concentration of power in the Executive undermines the balance of powers among three government branches, which is one of the key safeguards in our Constitution. Historically, concentration of power has been associated with despotism, corruption and abuse.
The Presidency of the United States has grown gradually more powerful since the Constitution was established in 1789, but the process accelerated since 1941. Many wartime expediencies that were initiated during World War II continued afterward through the Cold War. The overblown military, the un-accountable CIA, and a vastly expanded Department of State continued through the second half of the 20th Century.
Even in this context, the powers claimed by George W Bush were breathtaking in their contempt for the Constitution. There was no significant opposition in Congress or the Liberal Press, or (especially) in the Supreme Court when the Bush Administration shut down access to information, initiated domestic spying, detained prisoners without trial, and modified the laws passed by Congress with the subterfuge of "signing statements".
Perhaps the most disturbing new Presidential power is the one least discussed: the power to make war. The Constitution provides that only Congress has the power to declare war, and yet the US has fought five full-scale wars in the last 60 years in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan, all without formal declarations from Congress. There have also been numerous smaller-scale military operations, all without Congressional approval. The urgencies of war quite naturally lead to concentration of power in the executive. The specter of a President leading the nation into war with a hidden agenda of consolidating his power is shockingly grotesque, if all-too real. The possibility of self-serving hostility is precisely the reason why the Constitution has given the President no say in the decision to go to war, and why the violation of this principle has led to untold tragedy.
Many of us hoped that when Bush left the Oval Office and a Constitutional scholar assumed the presidency, most of the worst excesses of the Bush years would be reversed; but shockingly, the expansion of Presidential powers has continued. President Obama left us dumbstruck in the opening months of his administration when he defied campaign promises and announced that he wouldn't investigate the crimes of his predecessor because he didn't want to "do anything that would...weaken the institution of the presidency." Huffington Post article from March
Garry Wills, writing this week in the New York Review, tells the story in a broad context.
...the momentum of accumulating powers in the executive is not easily reversed, checked, or even slowed. It was not created by the Bush administration. The whole history of America since World War II caused an inertial transfer of power toward the executive branch. The monopoly on use of nuclear weaponry, the cult of the commander in chief, the worldwide network of military bases to maintain nuclear alert and supremacy, the secret intelligence agencies, the entire national security state, the classification and clearance systems, the expansion of state secrets, the withholding of evidence and information, the permanent emergency that has melded World War II with the cold war and the cold war with the "war on terror"--all these make a vast and intricate structure that may not yield to effort at dismantling it. Sixty-eight straight years of war emergency powers (1941--2009) have made the abnormal normal, and constitutional diminishment the settled order...
Even in areas outside national security, the Obama administration quickly came to resemble Bush's. Gay military personnel, including those with valuable Arabic-language skills, were being dismissed at the same rate as before. Even more egregiously, the Obama administration continued the defiance of the Constitution's "full faith and credit" clause, which requires states to recognize laws passed by other states, when it defended the Defense of Marriage Act, which lets states refuse to recognize gay marriages legally obtained in another state. Many objected when Dick Cheney would not name energy executives who came to the White House in 2002, though Hillary Clinton, as First Lady, had been forced to reveal which health advisers had visited her. Yet the Obama team, in June 2009, refused to release logs of those who come to the White House. (It later reversed itself, but only in response to a lawsuit.)
Some were dismayed to see how quickly the Obama people grabbed at the powers, the secrecy, the unaccountability that had led Bush into such opprobrium. Leon Panetta at the CIA especially puzzled those who had known him during the Clinton years. A former CIA official told The Washington Post, "Leon Panetta has been captured by the people who were the ideological drivers for the interrogation program in the first place." A White House official told Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, "It's like Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that turning around the huge secret empire built by the National Security State is a hard, perhaps impossible, task...
Bush's steps were extreme and autocratic, but it may be Obama who is doing the greater damage, by putting the stamp of bipartisan legitimacy on indefensible abuses of power.