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Playing the executive card [Commentary]

As President Barack Obama contemplates November's congressional elections, the odds are they may produce Republican majorities in both the House and Senate. That would likely mean more of the same legislative frustration that has met his presidency to date.

Forewarned by his first term, the president during his second has been relying more on his executive powers to advance his own key objectives. He has told ranking White House aides to explore ways to move parts of his own agenda without recourse to Congress.

Among his latest initiatives is an executive order under current law setting new curbs on carbon emissions at U.S. power plants in what supporters have called his most significant step in dealing with climate change. The move could be a preview of more presidential action orders, especially if the Democrats take a drubbing in the midterm elections.

Mr. Obama has recently offered other indications of relying on the singular powers of his office. He went to West Point and told graduating cadets he would be more selective in employing the military power that will be in their hands. He said he intended to turn more to diplomacy and multilateral action with allies than had his Republican predecessor.

The president also took due note of how as commander in chief he had "ended" the war in Iraq by withdrawing unilaterally all American combat troops, and intended to do the same in Afghanistan by the end of his presidency. This is in spite of the fact fighting and casualties have continued in both beleaguered countries.

Now the president has put his hand in a swarming beehive of public and congressional ire for using his executive power to negotiate the swap of an American soldier held for five high-profile Taliban detainees at Guantanamo, under highly questionable circumstances.

The release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, whose capture occurred in the wake of his mysterious departure from his base, has been challenged by critics as a bad deal imperiling the ultimate safety of American troops still on the battlefield. Some fellow soldiers have added to Mr. Obama's woes by casting Mr. Bergdahl as a deserter, as Army investigations continue.

On top of all this, Mr. Obama is in hot water with Congress for acting on his own and violating an agreement to notify Capitol Hill 30 days in advance of any U.S. release of a Gitmo detainee. Included among the complaining legislators is Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein, a stalwart Obama supporter. She noted that when the matter was discussed with them 18 months earlier, "they were virtually unanimous against the prisoner swap." She insisted there had been plenty of time to notify Congress of the deal.

In defense of his unilateral decision, Mr. Obama was obliged the other day to say, "the United States has always had a pretty sacred rule, and that is we don't leave our men and women in uniform behind." He punctuated the remark by adding: "Period. Full stop," and unwisely turned the release into a Rose Garden celebration with Mr. Bergdahl's parents, which seemed to many to be excessive, given the narrative.

It's clear in the president's increased decisiveness that he has grown weary of the lack of cooperation from Congress he's faced for nearly six years. It includes now the gripes of liberals in his own Democratic Party, who see him as talking tougher than his actions reflect, particularly regarding Russia's adventurism in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

This president, who's spent much of his time pivoting away from former President George W. Bush's wars, now risks accusations of emulating the earlier efforts of Mr. Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney, to expand presidential powers in wartime. Mr. Cheney expounded the theory of "unitary power," which holds that the Constitution gives the president as commander in chief unlimited authority to protect the nation as he sees necessary.

That coming from Mr. Obama would indeed be a considerable irony, as one who has deplored not only Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, but also the use of extreme measures of prisoner interrogation outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. For this embattled president, it seems like just one thing after another these days.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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