Barack Obama makes a statement about the death of US ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Rose Garden in 2012
When Trump declared the border situation a national emergency, you couldn’t move for breathless headlines questioning the constitutionality of his order. But has the mainstream media always held this deep commitment to reporting on the limits of power of the nation’s chief executive?
Trump is hardly the first president to make use of an executive order in order to circumvent Congress. Back in February, 2011, President Obama began contemplating strikes against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. Article I, Section 8, of the US Constitution grants Congress the power to declare war. But a search of contemporaneous headlines quickly reveals that extremely few news stories from the time mentioned the device by which the President would impose strikes on Libya – an executive order.
After Obama decided on military action without Congressional approval, almost no stories mention ‘executive order’ or national emergency or the Constitutionality of this decision; in stark contrast to stories on Trump’s border decision, which has always been framed by in these terms.
Unlike with Trump’s border action, stories before Obama declared his emergency order are bland, milquetoast fare. This CNN headline from Feb. 24, 2011 is representative: ‘Obama condemns Libyan violence, calls for international response’. Neither the headline nor the accompanying story hint at Obama’s executive order to come, the very next day.
Five days later, CNN ran a headline framing the President’s decision in his own terms: ‘Obama: Not acting in Libya “would have been a betrayal of who we are”’; the Washington Post did similarly in their story ‘Obama: US had responsibility to act in Libya’.
When the media did see fit to criticize the president, it was not because he took action without Congressional approval; it was because Obama had not taken the very same action on Libya – sooner!
In a March 28, 2011 New York Times op-ed headlined ‘President Obama on Libya’, the Grey Lady struck the same tone as the Washington Post. ‘President Obama made the right, albeit belated, decision to join with allies and try to stop Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi from slaughtering thousands of Libyans…. the president … made a strong case for why America needed to intervene in this fight…’
Instead of harping on the constitutional issues surrounding the president’s unilateral declaration, the New York Times complained only that Obama had ‘been far too slow to explain’ his decision.
Not only was the mainstream media mostly silent on Obama’s extra-Constitutional actions, several headlines explicitly ran interference for the president, like The Washington Post’s March 24, 2011 piece ‘Why Obama’s airstrikes don’t require Congressional approval’ and the NBC News story that in its first line advanced the striking narrative ‘The president does not need authorization from Congress before launching a military offensive.’
After several members of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, publicly expressed concerns that the Libyan missile strikes were not, in fact, constitutional, and might actually merit impeachment, CBS News ran the story ‘Is Obama’s Libya offensive constitutional?’ At that point, an accurate headline would have mentioned the Congressional criticism Obama was receiving.
For the most part, the media swept Constitutional considerations under the carpet. On the rare occasion they were forced to report on the subject due to Congressional outcries, the media framed the issue as an ‘attack’ on Obama for his executive decision. Sometimes, even that phrasing seemed too much for the New York Times, which revised the March 21, 2011 headline ‘Obama Attacked for No Congressional Consent on Libya’ to ‘Attack Renews Debate Over Congressional Consent’, which conflates attacks on Obama’s actions with Obama’s attacks on Libya.
This lack of criticism, or even comment, from the media is even more remarkable because Obama himself would end up calling the decision his ‘worst mistake’, and go on to tell The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg that the mission in Libya ‘didn’t work’ and the situation in Libya after his strikes was a ‘shit show.’
In contrast to the deafening silence both preceding Obama’s executive decision on Libya and in the months following it, recent media headlines trumpeted President Trump’s possible action on the border weeks before it was actually issued, and one is hard pressed to find a headline on the topic that doesn’t mention ‘emergency’ and ‘order’.
The Economist was asking ‘Can Donald Trump use emergency powers to build a southern-border wall?’ even before Trump created the emergency order;the same publication not only didn’t question Obama’s Libya actions, it celebrated them with the glowing headline: ‘The birth of an Obama doctrine’.
The New York Times ran the straightforward headline ‘National Emergency Powers and Trump’s Border Wall, Explained’ over a month before Trump took any executive action. Unlike their convoluted framing of Obama’s Libya decision, the Times explicitly references in its pull-no-punches headline the emergency device the president will use: ‘As Congress Passes Spending Bill, Trump Plans National Emergency to Build Border Wall’.
Other outlets were similarly forthright. ‘Trump still considering an executive order to fund wall’, the New York Post reported before his decision.
In addition to their candor about the Constitutional issues involved should Trump pull the trigger on an executive order, the media also ran analysis pieces like this one from USA Today: ‘National emergencies are common; declaring one for a border wall is not’, and invited Constitutional experts to discuss legal implications in stories like San Diego KUSI station’s ‘Using an executive order to demand the border wall’.
How different the world might be if ‘using an executive order to demand Libya strikes’ had been a headline during Obama’s administration.