The roots of the president's imperial impulse.
Barack Obama is threatening to bypass Congress and use executive orders to achieve the policy changes he can’t get through legislation. “We are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help that they need,” he said during the State of the Union address. “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.” Here seemingly is one more item in the indictment of Barack Obama’s arrogant dismissal of the Constitutional order, and his contempt for mixed government.
But once again, the problem isn’t the ideology or personality flaws of Obama, as dangerous and extensive as those are. Obama is just a more extreme version of Progressive ideas permeating our politics for more than a century. The problem runs deep in our political order, and will require much more than just changing a few political personalities in order to restore the limited government and citizen self-government intended by the Founders.
The “imperial presidency” Obama that himself decried when George W. Bush was in power is a corollary of the expanded federal government that Progressives claimed was necessary to address the new economic and social circumstances brought about by an industrialized economy and social change. Only a big federal government could achieve the collectivist goals and utopian programs Progressives wanted to pursue, for as Progressive theorist Herbert Croly wrote in 1919, “Only by faith in an efficient national organization, and by an exclusive and aggressive devotion to the national welfare, can the American democratic ideal be made good,” and “under existing conditions and simply as a matter of expediency, the national advance of the American democracy does demand an increasing amount of centralized action and responsibility.”
Such a centralized enlarged government requires a chief executive much stronger than the President designed by the Constitution. He must be a “leader of men,” as Woodrow Wilson put it, and not just a political leader, but a transformer and creator of national opinion. Wilson’s further remarks suggest an attitude towards leadership closer to the Italian fascism of Benito Mussolini than to the Constitution, and looks ahead to the messianic aura and rhetoric that has characterized Democrats like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and worst of all, Barack Obama. “Whoever would effect a change in a modern constitutional government,” Wilson wrote in 1887, “must first educate his fellow-citizens to want some change. That done, he must persuade them to want the particular change he wants. He must first make public opinion willing to listen and then see to it that it listen to the right things. He must stir it up to search for an opinion, and then manage to put the right opinion in its way.” Rather than policy rising from the various interests of the people and communicated through their representatives, now it will be imposed from above by a wiser “leader of men” who better knows than the people do what “right things” are good for them.
This is a vision of Presidential leadership far different from the Constitution’s chief executive, who ceded the law-making power to Congress, and who acted as a check and balance on the excesses of that branch of government. Wilson believed such a limited executive was unsuitable for the new challenges the country was facing. It now needed a president more powerful than the Constitution’s chief executive, who was limited to being “only the legal executive, the presiding and guiding authority in the application of law and the execution of policy . . . He was empowered [by the veto] to prevent bad laws, but he was not to be given an opportunity to make good ones.” Now the responsibility of the president to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed,” as the Constitution put it, must be revised and expanded to making the laws, according not to the people but to the powerful executive’s notion of what defines good laws. Sounds pretty much like what Obama has been doing and threatens to keep on doing.
Equally foreign to the Constitution is Wilson’s notion that government “is a living, organic thing, and must, like every other government, work out the close synthesis of active parts, which exist only when leadership is lodged in some one man or group of men.” Further contradicting the Constitution’s structure based on mixed government and on balancing and checking clashing passions and interests, Wilson writes, “You cannot compound a successful government out of antagonisms.” Thus we must “look to the President as the unifying force in our complex system, the leader both of his party and of the nation.” The Constitution recognized the various conflicting interests of the people, and sought only to keep one faction from dominating over another and limiting individual freedom by seizing control over the coercive power of the federal government. The Progressives, in contrast, want to aggrandize more and more central power in order to unify the national interests as they define it, and smooth out those messy, inefficient factional rivalries in order to achieve the improvement that “some one man or group of men” have decided is best for the country.
These un-Constitutional attitudes toward a powerful executive have been constant among Democrats and even occasionally some Republicans. What Obama has been doing during his presidency with his “pen and phone” is novel only in its brazen scope, nakedly political motivations, and blatant disregard for Congressional prerogative. But in spirit it is consistent with the Progressive movement’s impatience and disdain for the Constitution, its belief that a giant federal government armed with coercive regulatory power requires a stronger, if not messianic, President, and its assumption that technocrats of superior wisdom and virtue are better placed to determine the people’s best interests than are citizens and their representatives. Most Democrats today share the same assumptions, particularly Hillary “It takes a village” Clinton.
This history, moreover, reminds us just how far gone all of us are in accepting uncritically these assumptions. The Weekly Standard’s Jay Cost, for example, recently offered advice for those seeking “an equality agenda.” He says all the right things about the dysfunctions of a federal government held hostage to special interests and bureaucratic corruption. His solution is to “focus on empowering individuals directly, rather than via bureaucrats or interest groups. Block grants to state and local governments (where the citizenry can exercise greater control), vouchers, and easily accessible tax credits are all ways to level the economic playing field as well as the political one, for they all can empower individuals to make their own life choices.”
All these ideas are infinitely better than anything Obama has proposed for solving income inequality. But why even concede that “income inequality” is a problem at all, or that an “equality agenda” is a legitimate concern of the federal government? After all, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the federal government doesn’t “empower individuals,” people, families, and civil society do. The federal government just needs to get out of the way, and leave people the freedom to rise to whatever level their talents, hard work, virtue, and luck can take them. And it is naïve to think that the feds will give states and people a dime without attaching their own conditions and rules. Jay Cost is one of the smartest political commentators around, but he cedes too much to the anti-Constitutional agenda to “solve problems” by amassing power at the expense of individual freedom.
Obama is just the extreme version of a widespread belief among many in both parties that an enormous, intrusive federal regulatory and redistributionist regime is necessary for “solving problems” that in fact are best left to individuals and state and local government. The only argument between the parties these days is over the amount and pace of expansion––spending, for example, $800 billion on food stamps over the next decade rather than $808 billion. This belief in problem-solving big government is more insidious and thus in the long run more dangerous than Obama’s “pen and phone.”
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