Mr. Obama threatened to veto the $633 billion defense authorization bill, which Congress approved last week, over issues including the handling of detainees at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The president raised similar objections over the same bill last year, but went ahead and signed it into law after adding a statement that the administration would not detain Americans without trial.
Conferees did remove some contentious provisions, including a ban on same-sex marriage ceremonies on military bases. But the legislation still contains elements to which the president objects, such as rolling back cuts to the Air National Guard, and the White House reiterated its veto threat Thursday.
Lawmakers don’t expect Mr. Obama to veto the bill, and there is good reason for that view. The president has followed through on veto threats only twice in his first term, both on relatively inconsequential bills.
“With a lot of these veto threats, they’re just simply political statements,” said Gerhard Peters, co-founder of the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “It’s a way for the White House to distinguish itself from the Republicans in the House.”
By using the veto pen only twice in his first term, Mr. Obama ranks near the bottom among post-Watergate presidents. Republican George W. Bush didn’t use the veto once in his first term, when lawmakers were generally supportive of his initiatives in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Bush did use the veto 12 times in his second term. Four were overridden.
President Reagan used the veto 78 times over eight years; Congress upheld 69. President George H.W. Bush vetoed legislation 44 times in his single term; all but one were sustained. President Clinton used the veto pen 37 times in eight years, with only two overridden. President Carter vetoed 31 pieces of legislation; only two were overridden.
A White House spokesman wouldn’t comment on Mr. Obama’s rare use of the veto. In some cases, the president has threatened a veto knowing that the risk of a real confrontation with Congress is low, such as the administration’s promise last week to veto House Republicans’ “Plan B” during the “fiscal cliff” negotiations. The proposal by House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, would have raised taxes on families earning $1 million or more, but Senate Democrats made it clear that the legislation would never reach the president’s desk.
Mr. Boehner decided not to hold a vote on the bill after realizing that Republicans lacked the votes to pass it in the House.
“The increased threat of the filibuster is constantly used,” Mr. Peters said. “That’s one thing that makes it difficult for things to get out of the Senate, even in the previous Congress when you had a Democratic House. It’s very indicative of the changing nature of American politics over the last three or four decades. The fact is that the parties have just become more polarized. Jimmy Carter had a much different Democratic Party to deal with in Congress than Barack Obama has today. That’s one of the reasons that Jimmy Carter had to veto more things.”
One of Mr. Obama’s most serious veto run-ins with lawmakers was the defense-authorization battle of December 2011, which hinged on the question of Guantanamo detainees.
The president objected to provisions of the military spending bill that would have forced the administration to try terrorism suspects in military courts. But Mr. Obama signed the legislation on New Year’s Eve, when it was likely to attract little attention, but said he didn’t agree with everything in the bill.
“I have signed this bill despite having serious reservations with certain provisions that regulate the detention, interrogation and prosecution of suspected terrorists,” he said in a statement. “I want to clarify that my administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens. Indeed, I believe that doing so would break with our most important traditions and values as a nation. My administration will interpret Section 1021 [of the bill] in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law.”
As a U.S. senator from Illinois, Mr. Obama criticized President George W. Bush’s use of such “signing statements,” arguing at the time that the circumvention of congressional intent was a power grab by the executive branch.