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Is Barack Obama an imperial president?

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But it's the arrival of Mr. Podesta that has Washington buzzing. He ran the Obama transition after his first election and then repaired to his think tank, the Center for American Progress, resisting entreaties to join the administration. Most important, his passion is climate change, and he's a big believer in executive action – by the president himself, as well as via agency rules and regulations.

"I think [White House officials] were naturally preoccupied with legislating at first, and I think it took them a while to make the turn to execution. They are focused on that now," Podesta told Politico last year before agreeing to his new White House gig. "They have to realize that the president has broad authority, that he's not just the prime minister. He can drive a whole range of action. They always grasped that on foreign policy and in the national security area. Now they are doing it on the domestic side."

The (un)limits of executive power

Starting with George Washington, American presidents have used executive orders, proclamations, and other techniques to wield power, usually without controversy. These moves can be as important as the Emancipation Proclamation, and as trivial as an executive order allowing federal workers to leave work early on Christmas Eve.

They carry the force of law, but are ill-defined. Legal scholars disagree even on whether there's a constitutional "bright line" that defines what a president can do on his own and what requires congressional action.

"It gets controversial when a president simply states that he's acting under the power granted to him by the Constitution and laws of the United States," says Phillip J. Cooper, author of the book "By Order of the President: The Use and Abuse of Executive Direct Action."

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