To start with Bush: The usual opposition claims about Bush being dictatorial were about his theories of national security and the "unitary executive." His theories amounted to a claim that the President had the power to do whatever he wanted so long as he said the words "national security" first. This included authority to start wars, to name anyone he wanted as an enemy combatant, to indefinite detention without trial or to create military tribunals to trial, to torture or at least "coercive interrogation," and to wiretap. Indefinite detention without trial, torture or as near as possible, and unauthorized surveillance are all clearly the stuff of dictators, but at the same time I must admit that our side seriously exaggerated the danger, fearing that Bush would turn these things against his political opponents, when he does not appear to have done so. A lot of things that seemed alarming under his government were really just the way the system works. (Which is even more alarming, in some ways). The indefinite detention and abusive interrogation were limited to overseas use and not applied in a domestic context. His wiretapping in violation of statute was done after informing party leaders and heads of the relevant committees in both houses of Congress and informing the FISA court, apparently without opposition. There is nothing to suggest that he used his surveillance powers against political rivals as Nixon did. None of this excuses Bush, but it does put him in context.
As for Obama, Republicans' claim that he is an out of control executive and quasi-dictator tend to involve bombings without Congressional approval, alleged IRS audits of opposition groups, use of executive power to tweak problematic parts of Obamacare, use of the regulatory apparatus to enact various measures that could not pass Congress, entering into executive agreements with foreign powers instead of treaties subject to Senate approval, and his attempt to selectively not enforce immigration law against certain categories. Some might add his stretching newly-acquired powers of surveillance beyond all reasonable interpretation.
Unauthorized bombings and extraordinary stretching of surveillance powers have excited by far the least conservative opposition because they fit under the heading of national security. The most libertarian have objected, but plenty whose libertarianism stops at the water's edge don't mind. And these types can even claim consistency. Sure, they supported George Bush's unitary executive for the sake of national security, but they always insisted on the primacy of Congress in domestic policy because they don't really approve of domestic policy and would like to make it as difficult as possible.
So far as domestic policy goes, the whole IRS scandal amounted to nothing, although Republicans to this day do not admit it. At issue was an IRS regulation known as 501(c)(4), which allows "social welfare organizations" to claim tax exempt status despite doing some political lobbying and advertising, although their income spent on such activities is taxable. But such groups are not required to disclose their donors. Things get complicated here since a wide variety of advocacy groups can claim, quite sincerely, that advancing their political agenda promotes social welfare. So how does the IRS know if a political advocacy group is masquerading as a social welfare group? Confronted with a huge deluge of applicants for 501(c)(4) status, the IRS could not effectively process so many and instead applied special scrutiny to any that had a political-sounding name. This included conservative names (like "Tea Party") and liberal names (like "Occupy.") But although the IRS was not singling conservative organizations out for scrutiny beyond liberal organizations, far more conservative than liberal applicants were held up in the process for the simple reason that there were more conservative than liberal applicants in the first place. But the folk memory of Nixon using IRS audits to harass political opponents remains strong enough that Republicans badly want to apply the same accusation to Obama.
As for the others -- I suppose it is all a question of how far it is appropriate for the President to go when the opposition party controls Congress and has made it clear that there will be no cooperation on anything, and that their goal is to destroy the administration. The matter of Obamacare is easiest. It was duly passed when Democrats controlled Congress. Republicans declared all-out war. Unable to repeal it outright, they did everything in their power to sabotage the law, including refuse to repair the glitches and malfunctions that are inevitable in any major reform. To quote Norm Ornstein:
When a law is enacted, representatives who opposed it have some choices (which are not mutually exclusive). They can try to repeal it, which is perfectly acceptable -- unless it becomes an effort at grandstanding so overdone that it detracts from other basic responsibilities of governing. They can try to amend it to make it work better -- not just perfectly acceptable but desirable, if the goal is to improve a cumbersome law to work better for the betterment of the society and its people. They can strive to make sure that the law does the most for Americans it is intended to serve, including their own constituents, while doing the least damage to the society and the economy. Or they can step aside and leave the burden of implementation to those who supported the law and got it enacted in the first place.
But to do everything possible to undercut and destroy its implementation -- which in this case means finding ways to deny coverage to many who lack any health insurance; to keep millions who might be able to get better and cheaper coverage in the dark about their new options; to create disruption for the health providers who are trying to implement the law, including insurers, hospitals, and physicians; to threaten the even greater disruption via a government shutdown or breach of the debt limit in order to blackmail the president into abandoning the law; and to hope to benefit politically from all the resulting turmoil -- is simply unacceptable, even contemptible.In other cases, the question is a more difficult one. To what extent is it reasonable for the President to use the regulatory apparatus to (partially) enact policies opposed by Congress, often for reasons of sincere ideological disagreement? Likewise, to what extent is it reasonable for the President to make executive agreements instead of treaties, knowing that the proposed treaty would never pass the Senate? (And keep in mind that to many Republicans, all treaties are suspect, by the libertarian wing because treaties have the force of law and libertarians oppose law unless absolutely necessary; and by the nationalist wing because treaties infringe on US sovereignty).
And at the same time consider to what extent a President may be forced to govern by decree when the opposition party is ready even to default on the national debt with untold economic consequences. But, as I have said before, the whole showdown over the national debt is the ultimate proof that Obama was not the dictator his opponents alleged. To recognize this, one need only consider what Trump might have done under similar circumstances.
More on this in the next post.