AVON LAKE, Ohio — Facing off in last week’s foreign policy debate, Mitt Romney nodded in agreement with much of what President Obama has done with his powers as chief executive — including a full-on embrace of the president’s claim to sole authority to expand drone strikes to kill terrorist suspects.
The Republican presidential nominee has reserved the right to deploy U.S. military power to world hot spots, as Mr. Obama did in Libya, and to greenlight unilateral action against Iran. To the dismay of civil liberties activists, he has shifted his position on indefinite detention, agreeing with the president that U.S. citizens deemed “enemy combatants” are not entitled to habeas corpus.
While regularly complaining about Mr. Obama’s use of unilateral authority, such as his appointment of policy “czars” and issuing waivers to let states opt out of federal welfare law rules, Mr. Romney has made clear he takes issue not so much with the president’s powers themselves, but with how those powers have been used during the past four years.
Indeed, while saying he would roll back Mr. Obama’s policy waivers, Mr. Romney has vowed to issue a blanket waiver to all 50 states in an attempt to halt implementation of much of the president’s health care law.
“I think the easiest thing to conclude is that Romney wants a vigorous presidency just as much as Obama does, and if he assumes office, he wants to assume office not for the glory of sitting in the White House, but in order to get stuff done,” said William G. Howell, co-author of “While Dangers Gather: Congressional Checks on Presidential War Powers.” “In order to get stuff done, you’ve got to have power. So, he is not about to step out and say, ‘The problem with Obama is that he has used too much power.’ His argument is that [Mr. Obama] has used power, but for all the wrong ends.”
That may come as a disappointment to some Republican voters and those on Capitol Hill from both parties who argue that the president has aggregated too much authority to himself. But it has become standard for presidential candidates of both parties, who often seek to protect the powers of the office they are running to occupy.
Agreeing on terrorism
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the global war on terrorism and the use of drone strikes — a program begun under President George W. Bush that, under Mr. Obama, has become one of the chief weapons in the effort to kill terrorist leaders.
Before last week’s foreign policy debate, Mr. Romney’s campaign told The Washington Times that the challenger thought the president abused executive authority by refusing to “work with Congress to craft a long-term legal framework to govern the war against terrorism.”
But Mr. Romney didn’t raise any objections to the program last week when asked about it during the debate.
“I support that entirely,” the former Massachusetts governor said, “and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology and believe that we should continue to use it to continue to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends.”
Mr. Romney also has staked out a series of other foreign policy decisions he has said he would make in the White House: He would label China a currency manipulator, restore the Mexico City Policy banning federal funds from being sent to international organizations that conduct abortions, and move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a promise Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama also made on the campaign trail but did not carry out once in office.
Domestically, Mr. Romney has accused Mr. Obama of misusing his waiver authority on welfare laws and the No Child Left Behind education reform law enacted in 2002. In the latter case, Mr. Obama said the law was failing to meet its objective and Congress was deadlocked, so his administration issued waivers to dozens of states saying they no longer had to require that all students meet the mandates and deadlines set out in the law.
Mr. Romney agreed that the law needed to be fixed, but his campaign said Mr. Obama was using the waivers to try to entice states to accept a national curriculum in exchange for relief from testing requirements.
Mr. Obama’s expansion of executive authority has been one of the defining features of his first term in the White House, citing those powers as a way to circumvent Congress on actions such as recess appointments and committing U.S. forces to organize a “no-fly zone” over Libya.
It is a stark contrast to 2008, when candidate Obama vowed to rein in executive power.
“Obama the constitutional law scholar who takes a very limited view of executive power is not the president who has been pretty vigorous in advancing what power he has and is behaving in ways that are less transparent than many on the left would like to see,” Mr. Howell said.
John Hudak, of the Brookings Institution, said Mr. Obama has shown that if he cannot get something through Congress, he will do what he can from a unilateral perspective to get things done.
“So it ends up being quite an irony. If the president could get something from Congress on a compromise, he might take that, but instead, since he’s not getting much of anything from Capitol Hill, he essentially is taking everything he wants, and the unilateral actions let him do that in a pretty substantial way,” Mr. Hudak said.
Just as the Democrats took shots at Mr. Bush’s executive authority during the 2008 primary season, so Mr. Obama’s powers were a target in this year’s Republican campaign — particularly for Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the libertarian icon who argued that Republicans have become too eager to sacrifice individual liberties in the name of national security.
But debates over presidential power have given way to bread-and-butter issues such as jobs and recent foreign policy crises, leaving Mr. Romney room to recast himself and stake out the same kind of broad authority that Mr. Obama has claimed.
“All presidents have these extraordinary public expectations of them, and they have somewhere between four and eight years to try to address them and move the ball in a way that advances their policy objectives,” Mr. Howell said. “So no president is going to come forward and say ‘Give me less power.’ They are all interested in acquiring and guarding and nurturing as much power as they can.”