Sunday, March 25, 2012

Did Obama issue order allowing “dictatorial” powers?

Over the weekend, a fury erupted over President Obama’s release of an Executive Order that, according to many pundits, gives the president the power to take control of the national economy. According to normally level-headed commentator Dick Morris, who wrote a column titled “Obama assumes dictatorial powers,” the order gives “him vast powers to control every aspect of the U.S. economy in the event of war or even during a peacetime ‘emergency.’”

The pundits usually link the Executive Order to the National Defense Authorization Act, which many claim gives the president the power to indefinitely detain American citizens on charges of terrorism. As this column pointed out, the NDAA actually contains a specific exemption for U.S. citizens and legal aliens. Even if the charges about the law were true, it would be a gross violation of the Constitution and the right to habeas corpus.

The claims about the new Executive Order are similarly overblown. The preamble to the Executive Order cites the Defense Production Act of 1950. Harry Truman, not Barack Obama, was president in 1950. Most Americans would agree that Harry Truman did not assume dictatorial powers. notes that the Defense Production Act was enacted to respond to economic difficulties caused by the Korean and Cold Wars and “authorized Governmental activities in various areas, including requisition of property for national defense, expansion of productive capacity and supply, wage and price stabilization, settlement of labor disputes, control of consumer and real estate credit, and establishment of contract priorities and materials allocation designed to aid the national defense.” The Act has been updated, amended and reauthorized several times since 1950. It was modernized and limited in the 1980s. President Bush updated in again in October 2001.

Critics of President Obama’s order point to the reference to U.S. “national defense equipment in peacetime and in times of national emergency” as an unprecedented statement that means that the president is claiming the authority to nationalize American industry in peacetime as well as war. However,’s Ed Morrissey notes that the language about “peacetime” matches an Executive Order issued by President Clinton in 1994. President Clinton was not accused of fomenting a dictatorship either.

Morrissey further notes that much of President Obama’s Executive Order matches President Clinton’s 1994 order in many other respects as well. He points out that the main differences in the Obama and Clinton orders is with the reorganization of the president’s cabinet. In 1994, the Department of Homeland Security did not exist.

President Obama’s order also includes the phrase “under both emergency and non-emergency conditions” in section 201 (b). When taken in context, however, the section instructs agency heads “to prioritize and allocate resources and establish standards and procedures” that will “be used to promote the national defense.” Additionally, Clinton’s order did not limit applicability to emergency conditions.

Dick Morris bases much of his criticism on a Huffington Post article by Edwin Black. Black’s theory is that the order is a sign that President Obama is finally waking up to the probability of a Middle Eastern war involving Iran that would result in an interruption of oil supplies. Black claims that the order lays the groundwork for rationing of energy supplies. Black notes that the order mentions the “military use of civil transportation” and “stockpiles managed by the Department of Defense,” but neglects to mention that these are not new things. The DOD has contracted with civilian airlines to transport soldiers at least as far back as the Vietnam War when Braniff had military contracts to transport soldiers and cargo to the war zone. Likewise, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, a national stockpile of oil, dates back to 1978.

In any case, Black fails to point to any “smoking gun” in the order that indicates that the government is planning to enact rationing. The article amounts to nothing more than speculation and fails to take into account the long history of similar executive orders. In fact, executive orders dealing with defense resources date back to a 1939 order issued by President Roosevelt. The policy has been updated by almost every president since then.

Nothing in the entire document gives the government the right to nationalize or assume control over the private economy. There are references to loan guarantees, subsidies, and purchases, but not the outright commandeering of private assets. The claims that President Obama intends to use his Executive Order as a basis for seizing control of the U.S. economy or launching an American dictatorship are baseless. The only way such a conclusion can be reached is by deliberately taking snippets of the order out of context.

There are many words that might be used to describe Barack Obama (arrogant, misguided, naïve, incompetent), but there is no evidence to support the notion that the president is an evil man bent on turning the United States into a dictatorship. Conservatives do real damage to their cause when they ignore Obama’s very real and abysmal record on the economy and foreign policy to engage in authoritarian fantasies. Outrageous claims against President Obama serve only to distract from the real issues and, to that end, help the president’s re-election campaign.

Originally published on

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