On Tuesday, three days after the U.S. launched military action against Libyan forces, President Obama got around to articulating a rationale for doing so.
"The core principle that has to be upheld here," he explained, "is that when the entire international community, almost unanimously, says that there is a potential humanitarian crisis about to take place, that a leader who has lost his legitimacy decides to turn his military on his own people, that we can't simply stand by with empty words, that we have to take some sort of action," he said.
This is a rather different core principle from the one Obama articulated to The Boston Globe in 2007, when he said: "The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation."
Obama's vice president, Joe Biden, shared that view at the time. He told Chris Matthews that launching a military attack without congressional approval would be an impeachable offense. "I don't say those things lightly," Biden said. "I teach separation of powers and constitutional law. This is something I know."
This is far from the only instance in which the administration has violated its professed principles. As a candidate, Obama promised "no more illegal wiretapping of American citizens." As president, he defended wiretapping in court on state-secrets grounds. As a candidate, he denounced extraordinary rendition, military tribunals, indefinite detention without trial, and the excesses of the PATRIOT Act. As president, he has adopted them wholesale.
Conservatives have criticized Obama for such hypocrisies, and rightly so. But many conservatives were complicit in an equally egregious contravention of constitutional limits on power during the Bush years.
The Bush administration certainly pushed the envelope of executive power in the national-security arena, with the full-throated support of the American right. But it also amplified government's role in social policy: The No Child Left Behind Act and Medicare Part D produced the largest federal incursions into education and health care in decades. Yet conservatives were so busy defending the Bush administration's foreign-policy adventurism that most scarcely bothered to notice, let alone object.
Nor did they make much objection to the rapid growth of federal spending during the Bush years—which mushroomed from $2 trillion in fiscal 2002 to $3.9 trillion in fiscal 2009, a rate of growth faster than any administration since Lyndon Johnson's. If it is generally true that liberals object to infringements on civil liberties only when they are committed by a Republican, then it is equally true that conservatives object to the growth of government only on a Democrat's watch.
Presidents are human, too, and their inconsistent adherence to their professed principles might be forgiven with such an acknowledgement were it not for a curious pattern: Their inconsistencies seem to flow in only one direction.
George W. Bush's departures from conservative orthodoxy always redounded to the benefit of a larger federal role in domestic affairs. They always led to more government, not less. He never disappointed the Republican base by showing too much modesty in foreign affairs, too much reticence about the use of American power abroad, too little belief in the use of executive power for the sake of national security. The result was that government grew when Bush stuck to his principles, and it grew when he abandoned them.
Likewise, Barack Obama's deviations from liberal dogma have not occurred in the domestic realm, where liberals believe in the robust exercise of government power. Nowhere has he suggested the federal government lacks the authority to regulate industry, redistribute wealth, or reorganize the economy. Where he has transgressed, he has done so in matters of national security—and the canons he has trampled are those that would limit or constrain the use of executive power. The result is that government grows when Obama sticks to his principles, and it grows when he abandons them.
Every administration expands power where it wishes, but no power is ever repealed. The result is a one-way ratchet that tightens the grip of government, click after inexorable click. The problem is not that presidents are sometimes inconsistent—but that their apparent inconsistencies turn out to have such a remarkably consistent effect.