04/23/2012 10:01 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2012


Twenty-first century American politics make it very difficult to avoid hypocrisy. The New York Times documents the recent trend by President Obama to concentrate power in the executive branch by issuing executive orders to achieve results against Congressional opposition. My instantaneous reaction was: good for him.

But then it is necessary to recall that is exactly what George W. Bush did and many of us feared for the Constitutional system of checks and balances. The Founders of the Republic feared concentrated power in the executive knowing throughout history, that -- plus special interest corruption -- was the surest way to destroy a republican form of government.

It is human nature to excuse behavior when the result is what we favor, but to condemn that same behavior when the result is what we oppose. This is the pragmatic approach to politics, an approach much favored these days. But what about the violation of principle?

It is a matter of principle that too much power in the presidency, regardless of how it is used, is a threat to a balanced system of government. Precedents are established, and it is undeniable that the next Republican president will cite Obama precedent for taking unilateral executive action to achieve his or her results. And progressive people will rise up to condemn it.

But there is a distinction between the Bush and the Obama precedents. George Bush, and the lawyers who advised him, claimed some kind of theory they called the "unitary executive," meaning, in effect, that the president could do pretty much anything he wanted to do. To any student of republican government, that sounded like a claim of unlimited authority and a truly frightening proposition. To the degree the Obama administration has made any claim, it is simply that he faces an impenetrable opposition in the House and a filibustering Senate minority to virtually every major legislative initiative and even second and third tier administrative appointments. There is a difference here, and it is a vitally significant one.

Nevertheless, it is necessary even for progressives and Obama supporters to understand the implications for history and the future of concentrated power in the White House. The day will surely come when that kind of authority will be used, even more than it has been already, to violate Fourth Amendment freedoms, to justify unconstitutional searches and seizures, to place citizens under surveillance, and to violate due process of law. And the justification will be one of expediency: We had no choice. We had to act.

Even as we nod in agreement when the President says "We can't wait," we will find it necessary to think about how a future, less benign, president will say the same thing to support reconstitution of the imperial presidency.