The current debate about President Barack Obama’s executive agreement with Iran highlights the Constitution’s contested executive power. Presidents have been at the forefront of developing and expanding the sanctions against Iran since Iran seized American hostages in 1979.
The fact that Iran began sponsoring terrorism got Congress involved. With the approval of Congress, subsequent presidents furthered and deepened the sanctions. In 1995, for instance, Congress passed the Iran and Syrian Sanctions Act, pressing foreign countries to stop investing in Iran’s oil and gas industry. The noose on Iran tightened in 2006, when Congress empowered an office within the Department of the Treasury to sanction foreign companies who helped support Iran’s nuclear and missile programs. Again, Congress acted in 2010, 2012 and 2013 to tighten the noose on Iran’s nuclear and missile programs with acts expanding the enforcement of the sanctions regime.
All of the acts enjoyed overwhelming support from both sides in Congress. The policy was a model of executive-legislative collaboration in the conduct of foreign policy.
Then, somewhat abruptly, Obama suspended or waived most of the provisions in the sanctions regime, including the freezing of assets and the limits on selling products to Iran. He did this with an executive order, without involving Congress in approving his actions. He has made it pretty clear that no matter what Congress does, his choice to ignore the sanctions regime is his policy.
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Obama’s initial approach of working with Congress was in keeping with the critique that candidate Obama made of executive power when he was the “hope and change” candidate in 2008. During that campaign, he promised to scale back the Patriot Act, limit foreign drone strikes, close Guantanamo Bay, foreswear signing statements, and work with Congress to set the direction of the country’s foreign policy.
Many of these promises went out the window when he ascended to the presidential chair. While he is often seen on the left as a sell out for abandoning his promises, what if, in effect, the Constitution made him do it? Presidents must often act, as the Federalist Papers say, with “energy,” “secrecy” and “dispatch.” They have dirty jobs to do and they must be done in order to protect the country. President Bush may have relished exercising these responsibilities, but President Obama has not totally shied away from taking them on. Executives also seek to be their own man when they can, and Obama’s Iran policy seems to be an example of that.
Obama’s constitutional responsibilities, both in foreign affairs and in domestic security, made him more aggressive in his use of executive power than he promised when he campaigned in 2008. This is what Ben Kleinerman, a professor of political science at Michigan State University, expects to see from presidents. Kleinerman is the American Founding Initiative’s featured speaker for its 8th annual Constitution Day talk tonight. He will be giving a talk entitled “Barack Obama: Becoming Commander-in-Chief” in the Jordan Ballroom of the Boise State Student Union Building. Free parking is available in the Lincoln Avenue garage. We hope to see you there.
Scott Yenor is a professor of political science at Boise State University.