Of all the time-honored failings for which we criticize sitting presidents - by "we" I mean pundits, academics and other members of the chattering phylum - two charges stand out: imperialism and shrinkage. Usually it's one or the other.
When the president is unpopular or when he's lost control of his agenda or when he just seems inadequate to the demands of the job, the headline "The Incredible Shrinking Presidency" proliferates like kudzu. Barack Obama has been diagnosed with presidential shrinkage many times, including in Politico, the New York Times and my own National Review.
The flip side of the shrinking presidency is the imperial presidency, something we've been fretting by name since at least Franklin Roosevelt and in principle since the founding.
Politically, what is remarkable is that Obama seems to be doing both at the same time. His "Year of Action" is simultaneously Caesar-like and pathetic. Last week, he announced that he would unilaterally raise the minimum wage for federal contractors seeking new work. Only 1 percent of the workforce makes the minimum wage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This probably explains why the White House wouldn't give an actual number when asked how many people his bold action would benefit.
Yet, at the Democratic retreat last week, Obama threw cold water on the idea that he could do much more on immigration from the Oval Office, saying there are "outer limits to what we can do by executive action."
The "Year of Action" should actually be seen as a replay of President Clinton's small-ball comeback after the 1994 midterms. Clinton picked micro-initiatives - school uniforms, the V-chip, etc. - that poll-tested well but amounted to very little in terms of policy. The clever twist Obama is putting on his micro-agenda is doing it in a way that successfully baits opponents into making the case that he's more powerful and relevant than he really is.
That's a lesson Democrats would do well to ponder, because they are rhetorically giving Obama license to do whatever he likes. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) recently declared that the priority for her and her comrades should be to draft executive orders - not laws - for Obama to sign. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) suggested on "Fox News Sunday" that the president could rewrite Obamacare at whim because the Constitution gives him the power to act during a national security threat. And of course, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blew up the filibuster rules for appointees.
They shouldn't be surprised if the next Republican president takes advantage of that license.