Of all the time-honored failings for which we criticize sitting presidents -- by "we" I mean pundits, academics and other members of the chattering phylum -- two charges stand out: imperialism and shrinkage. Usually it's one or the other.
When the president is unpopular or when he's lost control of his agenda or when he just seems inadequate to the demands of the job, the headline "The Incredible Shrinking Presidency" proliferates like kudzu. When the Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006, the Economist proclaimed "The Incredible Shrinking Presidency" of George W. Bush on its cover. Barack Obama has been diagnosed with presidential shrinkage many times, including in Politico, the New York Times and my own National Review.
The flip side of the shrinking presidency is the imperial presidency, something we've been fretting by name since at least Franklin Roosevelt and in principle since the founding.
Politically, what is remarkable is that Obama seems to be doing both at the same time. His "Year of Action" -- intended to dispel that lame-duck scent -- is simultaneously Caesar-like and pathetic. (Maybe the presidential seal should depict that dude from the Little Caesars pizza commercials?) Last week, he announced that he would unilaterally raise the minimum wage for federal contractors seeking new work. Only 1 percent of the workforce makes the minimum wage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and vanishingly few of them work for the federal government. This probably explains why the White House wouldn't give an actual number when asked how many people his bold action would benefit.
Yet, at the Democratic retreat last week, Obama threw cold water on the idea that he could do much more on immigration from the Oval Office, saying there are "outer limits to what we can do by executive action."
Some of his unilateral actions are a bigger deal, of course. The Environmental Protection Agency's decision to treat carbon dioxide as a "pollutant" is an outrageous expansion of executive power. But Obama doesn't tout that as a bullet point; he let the EPA take the political heat for that decision a while ago. His multiple unilateral revisions to Obamacare run the gamut from desperate tinkering to outright lawlessness. But flop-sweat panic to compensate for executive incompetence and to fend off a rout in the midterms doesn't exactly project presidential boldness either.