‘One thing I’m proud of,” cultural icon Barack Obama boasted to MSNBC’s crack team of sycophants in 2006, “is that very rarely will you hear me simplify the issues.” On this, he has certainly been true to his word. Brevity and candor, shall we say, are not among our smartest president’s strengths nor, outside the abstract, is he much of a salesman.
Nevertheless, as gauche as it might sound to those who make a living being inscrutable, sometimes in politics questions really do have simple answers. Yesterday, speaking to journalists at the G20 summit in Russia, Obama was asked again and again what he planned to do if Congress refused to authorize action in Syria. The president brushed away the question as if it were an irrelevance. “You’re not getting a direct response,” he told journalists. When they pushed him anyway, he termed the matter a “parlor game.”
If you’re thinking that it is little short of breathtaking that a man who is content to talk at length to the press about a gay basketball player could have the temerity to characterize a question about the constitutional order of the United States as an intrusion, you’re absolutely right. What the president should have said is: “This is straightforward. If Congress refuses to authorize me to order action, I will not order any action.” This would not only have comported admirably with his own on-the-record profession that it remains illegal for the executive branch to order “military action” sans the blessing of the legislative branch, but it would also have been the only possible answer that tallies with his having asked for permission in the first place.
From the rest of us, though, this ploy should elicit a healthy “Oh, come off it!” The Obama administration has long presumed that constitutional rules bind the executive only if and when it judges those rules to be sensible, friendly, or apolitical. Immigration, welfare, Obamacare, the debt ceiling — Syria is just the latest issue on which it is asserting exemption from the law. How often have we heard the president tell adoring crowds that if Congress will not act he “will do it anyway”? Or, as he put it to Colorado Springs’ KOAA-TV in 2011, “It would be nice if we could get a little bit of help from Capitol Hill,” but, if it isn’t forthcoming, “we’re going to go ahead and do it ourselves.”
One almost has to admire the man’s consistency. In St. Petersburg, Obama went so far as to apply his favored test to the United Nations Security Council, peremptorily waving away the authority of an institution, which he has historically recognized as estimable, with the now familiar explanation that it is “paralyzed, frozen, and doesn’t act” — and, we are therefore to accept, moot. Students of history will note the delicious irony of this statement’s being delivered a few miles from the city’s Tauride Palace, in which the short-lived imperial State Duma briefly set up shop at the turn of the 20th century. Then, Czar Nicholas II was so angry at what he regarded to be the impositions on his prerogative — the product of concessions forced by the 1905 revolution — that, before business had even started, he issued some “fundamental laws” according himself the title of “supreme autocrat,” conferring on himself the right to veto any parliamentary decision that was unpalatable to him, and allowing himself to dismiss the body on a whim. Now, almost a century after the Duma was dismissed so that the Great War might be more efficiently prosecuted, Obama stood outside a Russian palace and delivered his own imperial assessment: I can do what I want.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m always up for listening to an American president bash the United Nations. But it helps if he does so for the right reason. The United Nations is useless not because the incumbent president considers it to be temporarily dysfunctional or unsupportive of his aims but because it is an inherently corrupt, flawed, and feckless operation that — unlike Congress — has no binding influence on the United States. If one is to submit to the U.N., which this president has generally argued America should, then one must stand by its decisions when one doesn’t like them. It should be clear to all but the most partisan and obtuse that if an institution can’t say no — for whatever legal reason — then it is not an institution at all. Instead, it is an advice column, detached from the body politic and unworthy of the attentions of the head of state.
This is all to say that this president’s reflexive view of executive power needs smashing — and smashing hard. The constitutional order of the world’s greatest republic is not to be subjected to a veto if it yields messy results, nor does it set a good example to pretend to respect international bodies but to bolt when they no longer suit. The rule of law and the integrity of public institutions are the very root of any successful society, just as their dissolution is the overture to collapse. While human nature and the apparently inexorable tendency of government to metastasize dictates that this is almost certainly not going to happen, it is fast becoming my view that the primary role of the next president will be very publicly to explain his legal limitations, and then to stick by them — perhaps even deliberately losing a couple of issues to make a point. In the name of both security and indifference, we have rendered far too much of what is ours to Caesar. Cincinnatus, where art thou?
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.