Let Us Tell You What We’re Not Going to Do About Presidential Lawlessness

Why is he always telling them what he’s not going to do?

This has become a constant refrain among President Obama’s Republican and conservative critics. And it is an excellent question. Why does the president tell jihadists from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda that the American campaign against them will be strictly limited to aerial bombing (sporadic, at that) and absolutely, positively will not involve the introduction of U.S. ground forces?

The theory behind the question is bulletproof: the only way you can hope to keep bad actors in check, to discourage them from acting roguishly in pursuit of their ambitions, is to indicate that you might respond with your superior powers. Even if you are reluctant to unleash those powers, the seed of doubt planted by signaling the possibility of decisive counteraction forces rogues to tread lightly. On the other hand, take your decisive weapons off the table and you’re sure to find ISIS mocking your impotence, sacking city after city, and poised to take Baghdad.

My question for my colleagues: why don’t we practice what we preach?

Back in June, my book Faithless Execution was published. Contrary to some of the commentary it provoked, I did not call for President Obama’s immediate impeachment. Indeed, I argued that the lesson of the Clinton impeachment episode was that it is a mistake to commence impeachment proceedings in the absence of strong public support for the president’s removal.

The point of the book was to address how presidential lawlessness -- a threat to our governing structure over which the Framers agonized -- is dealt with in the American constitutional system. Other than the ballot box, the Constitution provides only two ways for Congress to rein in presidential maladministration: the power of the purse and impeachment. That is, Congress can starve the administration of the funds needed to carry out its rogue practices, or it can remove from power executive officials -- up to and including the president -- who are lawless, derelict, profoundly dishonest, or incompetent in the carrying out their duties.

Like committing military “boots on the ground” in the Middle East, the use of these powers could be dispositive. Moreover, if Republicans signaled that reluctant resort to these powers was a distinct possibility -- a signal that would rivet public attention to presidential lawlessness, and could thus alter the political climate -- President Obama would be forced to factor that into his calculations.

Yet -- adopting the president’s self-defeating strategy for conducting war -- congressional Republicans cannot quickly enough or often enough tell the world what they are not going to do about Obama’s lawlessness.