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A more realistic president? [Commentary]

As President Obama embarks on his sixth year in the Oval Office, he does so with a greater reality of the political equation he faces, as clearly demonstrated the other night in his State of the Union address.

The freshman chief executive five years ago entered the office expressly committed to change the way Washington worked. But now he's acknowledged to Congress and the nation that fundamental change was an illusion. As long as pivotal elements in the legislative branch are dug in against his aspirations for legislative cooperation, Mr. Obama has admitted, he has to rely on his own executive powers and persuasion.

In 2009, in saying he intended to change Washington's ways, Mr. Obama obviously meant bringing comity and compromise back as staples of bipartisanship between the White House and Congress in running the federal government.

But after five years of partisan obstruction on Capitol Hill, Mr. Obama says he will still set out to change Washington all right, but not as he originally thought he could. Instead, he's told congressional Republicans that while he's still willing to work with them, he's going to end-run them if they continue to buck his own legislative agenda.

This declaration that he will make greater use of executive powers to achieve progress on proposals stonewalled in Congress has generated GOP cries of protest, including allegations that Mr. Obama is threatening to violate the Constitution by bypassing an equal branch of the government.

The charge is both ludicrous and ironic. The previous Republican administration took actions and made claims about the power of the executive branch to act without congressional consultation that were a centerpiece of its disastrous foreign policy for eight long years.

In 2003, President George W. Bush relied on what his legal advisers touted as the power of "the unitary executive" to invade Iraq without winning explicit approval of Congress to do so. The result was his war of choice that proved calamitous over the last decade.

The "unitary power" concept was thrown in the face of Congress as early as 2002. Justice Department official John Yoo told a Senate committee that the president was willing to have Congress' support but didn't need it to act, under this interpretation of his powers as commander in chief of the armed forces, especially in wartime.

The administration at the time, already at war in Afghanistan in quest of the perpetrators of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was busy trying to hitch the Saddam Hussein regime to the attacks, unsuccessfully as it turned out. But it invaded Iraq anyway, presumably on the basis of the 2001 congressional use-of-force resolution authorized specifically in response to the 9/11 assaults, not any perceived threat from Iraq.

Thereafter, Vice President Dick Cheney took up the cause of defending and expanding the cause of presidential power, especially in wartime. He used that expanded power subsequently to justify the open-ended detention of suspected terrorists and the use of extreme measures of interrogation.

Mr. Cheney and his staff aggressively pushed against civil-liberties advocates who charged that such measures violated Geneva conventions against use of torture, leading to other allegations that Mr. Cheney was exceeding his own very limited vice-presidential powers under the Constitution.

Mr. Obama's use of more modest and limited executive powers to break the congressional logjam will have its limitations in dealing with issues like income inequality, a major target in his remaining three years as president. Perhaps the best he may hope for is to give Republican moderates an argument with which to persuade tea-party conservatives to lighten up a bit and get back in the legislative game.

But that notion also is a long shot, as the increasingly harsh and vocal faction of the Grand Old Party presses its congressional leadership to hold the line against Mr. Obama in the simultaneous internal struggle for control of the party itself.

After five years of being cast as an all-purpose hobgoblin, and with Obamacare successfully made into a bad word among moderate and conservative Republicans alike, the president shouldn't expect the average congressional Republican suddenly to turn into Mister Nice Guy.

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 © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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