A power grab is a sudden acquisition of power by a person or group. It’s generally seen as unscrupulous and driven by selfish motives.
Ironically, people who already have power are the ones most often accused of carrying out power grabs. Presidents and other leaders who overstep their limits, constitutional or otherwise, are said to be making a power grab.
In 2006, the former Vice President Al Gore accused President Bush of grabbing power through his “war on terrorism.” Gore claimed that Bush was handing the National Security Agency too much power to spy on ordinary Americans. As CNN reported at the time, Gore “called on Congress and the public to resist what he called ‘a gross and excessive power grab’ by the Bush administration amid the war on terrorism, declaring that “our Constitution is at risk.”
“A president who breaks the law is a threat to the very structure of our government,” Gore added. The president’s allies responded that he was just using the normal powers available to any president.
In 2012, Newsweek ran an article titled “President Obama’s Executive Power Grab.” Newsweek pointed out that President Obama was relying heavily on executive orders in order to implement his platform; this approach amounted to a sort of power grab. At the same time, Newsweek argued that Obama had been forced into that path by an obstructionist Congress:
Taken individually, none of Obama’s unilateral maneuvers are particularly outrageous; presidents have been making similar moves for decades now. And yet together they represent a break from the past. Unlike most his predecessors—think FDR inventing the modern administrative state during the Great Depression, or Bush pushing the limits of torture and surveillance after Sept. 11—Obama is not expanding executive power to meet the demands of an external crisis. Instead, he is counteracting a new pattern of partisan behavior—nonstop congressional obstruction—with a new, partisan pattern of his own.
A few years later, the Atlantic ran a piece accusing President Trump of carrying out his own series of power grabs. The piece was titled “The Coronavirus Has Not Halted Trump’s Power Grab” – it read, in part,
Although the pestilence that has killed more than 10,000 Americans and shut down the U.S. economy is understandably dominating the headlines, the Trump administration’s efforts to erode democracy and the rule of law have not subsided. The authoritarianization of the federal government has hampered its response to the pandemic, squandering scarce resources on shoring up the president’s lies and pursuing his political interests at the public’s expense. This is the predictable result of an authoritarian logic in which the preservation of the regime takes precedence over the safety of its own citizens, because the leader is the incontestable expression of popular will.
Of course, American presidents aren’t the only ones who can carry out power grabs. The phrase gets used a lot in foreign policy discussions as well. American pundits, for example, often accuse the Chinese government of carrying out power grabs