Presidential Debate 2012: Obama Must Defend His Imperial Presidency


Tonight, President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney will brave each other one last time for the third and final presidential debate. The session will focus exclusively on foreign policy; a subject that many believe will favor the president. 

The facts certainly support this prediction. President Obama, to the chagrin of many of his 2008 backers, has exercised a cautious foreign policy that has favored strategic intervention just as often as it favors withdrawal from America's current military deployments. The Obama administration has overseen the exit of U.S. troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan, the death Osama bin Laden, and the ousting of Islamic dictators abroad (although what impact President Obama's policy had on the Arab Spring remains up for debate). And what interventions he led abroad, such as the military action in Libya and drone strikes in Pakistan, were sufficiently out of sight so as to not worry or anger most of the American public.  

If anything, the president's foreign policy can be viewed as preserving the status quo — a difficult position for Mitt Romney, or any challenger, to assail. 

However, in foreign policy, there are drawbacks to holding federal office. Not only do federal officials have a voting record they must defend — something President Obama benefited from greatly as a 2008 primary candidate 'opposed' to the Iraq War — but they also represent the very institutions that Americans fear will abuse power. 

President Obama, like any past president and federal official, is tied to the demands of his office. He is no longer Barack Obama concerned citizen, but rather Barack Obama the President of the United States. His interests now align with the interests of the executive branch. What does this mean? It means that for the past four years President Obama has implemented policies that both expand the powers of the state at the expensive of the people and expand the power of the presidency at the expensive of the more democratic Senate. 

Yes, his policies represent his genuine attempt to defend American interests abroad, but now he interprets those interests in such a way as to grant the executive as much as authority as possible.

Thus, I predict that President Obama's presentation tonight will take a dramatically different tone than his 2008 plea to the American people. Then he was the popularist challenger who decried the Iraq War as an abuse beyond the president's constitutional powers. Tonight, in contrast, he will become the champion of decisive action who defends the Libyan strike as a needed blow to terrorists abroad. I should note that for its baggage Operation Iraqi Freedom was backed by a joint resolution, the closest we've come to constitutional authorization since World War II. The Libyan action had no such congressional backing.

Important, I do not blame the president for this shift. Nor will I blame Mitt Romney if he follows a similar path should he be elected. It's the nature of the beast of government to consume reformers and spit them out as company men. That is why our Constitution established divided government and shared powers in the first place — to act as institutional checks when own government officials will not check themselves. 

So I will not blame President Obama for his defense of the presidency, and I will not condemn him if his rhetoric flipflops from his 2008 debate against John McCain. I will, however, enjoy the dance while his feet lay on top of the coals. I hope that Mitt Romney brings music. 

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Live Updates: 

9:11 Obama criticizes Mitt Romney for having a shifting foreign policy. That can at times indicate lack of knowledge or it can represent an understanding that foreign policy is fact sensitive and cannot be rigidly forecasted. Do you want a president that follows an unwise prediction or do you want one that is willing to make a decision on the merits of each action as it comes? 

9:21 Obama defends Libya action as necessary because of the "unique circumstances" surrounding the intervention. He cites the international coalition as one such circumstance. I am curious then if President Obama sees the coalition behind Operation Iraqi Freedom as a circumstance justfying that intervention since it included many allied nations, including the UK, Australia, Poland, and Spain. Although multi-lateral actions sooths international concerns, it is not a enumerated exception to congressional authorization.

9:39 Both candidates weave reconciliatory language into their platform because they recognize that the American people are war weary. Whether that language translates into actual policy after election day is another matter. High ideals often defer to cynical realities in international relations.

9:45 I am not surprised that the debate has yet ask about civil liberties. President Obama has an awful record on that front, even compared to his predecessor. Bush, for all his faults, never asserted the power to detain indefinitely American citizens captured on American soil. 

9:58 Both Obama and Romney depict America as a force that liberates other nations. While I agree with the sentiment, I must note that humanitarian intervention is not yet a recognized justification for use of force under the United Nation Charter. It is still technically a violation of international law, for whatever that's worth.

10:02 As facts change on the ground, a president's foreign policy should change to reflect that. 

10:13 Mitt Romney defends President Obama's use of drones in Pakistan. This is another indication of America's war weariness. Neither candidate wants to commit to policies that require boots on the grounds. Indirect action that lacks the risk of American casualties has now become the strategy of choice for hopeful candiates.   

10:33 I am a littled disappointed that Obama did not have to answer for way his foreign policy departs from his campaign promises four years ago.