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The Front Man
President Obama is the nominal leader for permanent bureaucracy.


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Kevin D. Williamson

Conservatives have for years attempted to put our finger upon precisely why Barack Obama strikes us as queer in precisely the way he does. There is an alienness about him, which in the fever swamps is expressed in all that ridiculous Kenyan-Muslim hokum, but his citizen-of-the-world shtick is strictly sophomore year — the great globalist does not even speak a foreign language. Obama has been called many things — radical, socialist — labels that may have him dead to rights at the phylum level but not down at his genus or species. His social circle includes an alarming number of authentic radicals, but the president’s politics are utterly conventional managerial liberalism. His manner is aloof, but he is too plainly a child of the middle class to succumb to the regal pretensions that the Kennedys suffered from, even if his household entourage does resemble the Ringling Bros. Circus as reimagined by Imelda Marcos when it moves about from Kailua Beach to Blue Heron Farm. Not a dictator under the red flag, not a would-be king, President Obama is nonetheless something new to the American experience, and troubling.

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It is not simply the content of his political agenda, which, though wretched, is a good deal less ambitious than was Woodrow Wilson’s or Richard Nixon’s. Barack Obama did not invent managerial liberalism, nor has he contributed any new ideas to it. He is, in fact, a strangely incurious man. Unlike Ronald Reagan, to whom he likes to be compared, President Obama shows no signs of having expended any effort on big thinkers or big ideas. President Reagan’s guiding lights were theorists such as F. A. Hayek and Thomas Paine; Obama’s most important influences have been tacticians such as Abner Mikva, bush-league propagandists like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and his beloved community organizers. Far from being the intellectual hostage of far-left ideologues, President Obama does not appear to have the intellectual energy even to digest their ideas, much less to implement them. This is not to say that he is an unintelligent man. He is a man with a first-class education and a business-class mind, a sort of inverse autodidact whose intellectual pedigree is an order of magnitude more impressive than his intellect.

The result of this is his utterly predictable approach to domestic politics: appoint a panel of credentialed experts. His faith in the powers of pedigreed professionals is apparently absolute. Consider his hallmark achievement, the Affordable Care Act, the centerpiece of which is the appointment of a committee, the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), the mission of which is to achieve targeted savings in Medicare without reducing the scope or quality of care. How that is to be achieved was contemplated in detail neither by the lawmakers who wrote the health-care bill nor by the president himself. But they did pay a great deal of attention to the processes touching IPAB: For example, if that committee of experts fails to achieve the demanded savings, then the ball is passed to . . . a new committee of experts, this one under the guidance of the secretary of health and human services. IPAB’s powers are nearly plenipotentiary: Its proposals, like a presidential veto, require a supermajority of Congress to be overridden. The president likes supermajorities, except when he doesn’t — the filibuster was not a sacred institution, but it did give the Senate an important lever for offsetting executive overreach. The House is designed to be an engine, the Senate a brake. Harry Reid has just helped take the brakes off of President Obama’s lawless agenda, for the purpose of installing friendly judges who will look the other way when his agenda is put to the legal test. 

IPAB is the most dramatic example of President Obama’s approach to government by expert decree, but much of the rest of his domestic program, from the Dodd-Frank financial-reform law to his economic agenda, is substantially similar. In total, it amounts to that fundamental transformation of American society that President Obama promised as a candidate: but instead of the new birth of hope and change, it is the transformation of a constitutional republic operating under laws passed by democratically accountable legislators into a servile nation under the management of an unaccountable administrative state. The real import of Barack Obama’s political career will be felt long after he leaves office, in the form of a permanently expanded state that is more assertive of its own interests and more ruthless in punishing its enemies. At times, he has advanced this project abetted by congressional Democrats, as with the health-care law’s investiture of extraordinary powers in the executive bureaucracy, but he also has advanced it without legislative assistance — and, more troubling still, in plain violation of the law. President Obama and his admirers choose to call this “pragmatism,” but what it is is a mild expression of totalitarianism, under which the interests of the country are conflated with those of the president’s administration and his party. Barack Obama is the first president of the democracy that John Adams warned us about.

“Democracy never lasts long,” Adams famously said. “It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.” For liberal regimes, a very common starting point on the road to serfdom is the over-delegation of legislative powers to the executive. France very nearly ended up in a permanent dictatorship as a result of that error, and was spared that fate mostly by good luck and Charles de Gaulle’s patriotism. Long before she declared her infamous state of emergency, Indira Gandhi had been centralizing power in the prime minister’s office, and India was spared a permanent dictatorship only by her political miscalculation and her dynasty-minded son’s having gotten himself killed in a plane wreck. Salazar in Portugal, Austria under Dollfuss, similar stories. But the United States is not going to fall for a strongman government. Instead of delegating power to a would-be president-for-life, we delegate it to a bureaucracy-without-death. You do not need to install a dictator when you’ve already had a politically supercharged permanent bureaucracy in place for 40 years or more. As is made clear by everything from campaign donations to the IRS jihad, the bureaucracy is the Left, and the Left is the bureaucracy. Elections will be held, politicians will come and go, but if you expand the power of the bureaucracy, you expand the power of the Left, of the managers and minions who share Barack Obama’s view of the world. Barack Obama isn’t the leader of the free world; he’s the front man for the permanent bureaucracy, the smiley-face mask hiding the pitiless yawning maw of total politics.

In an important sense, the American people have no political say in the health-care law, for example, because Congress did not pass a law reforming the health-care system; instead, Congress passed a law empowering the Obama administration, through its political appointees and unelected time-servers, to create a new national health-care regime. The general outline of the program is there in the law, but the nuts and bolts of the thing will be created on the fly by President Obama and his many panels of experts. There are several problems with that model of business, one of which is that President Obama, and more than a few of his beloved experts, have political interests. The partisans of pragmatism present themselves as disinterested servants of the public weal, simply collecting the best information and the best advice from the top experts and putting that into practice. Their only political interest, they would have us believe, is in helping the public understand what a great job is being done for them. Consider President Obama’s observation that his worst mistake in his first term was “thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right . . . .The nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism, especially during tough times.” (It never seems to have entered into the president’s head that he might have got the policy wrong.) But of course there is a good deal more to politics than that. For example, the president would very much like the unemployment problem to be somewhat abated by the time of the 2014 congressional elections, but he knows that this is unlikely to happen with employers struggling under an expensive health-care mandate that he has not told enough of a story about. And so he has decided — empowered to do so by precisely nothing — that the law will not be enforced until after the elections. Neither does the law empower him arbitrarily to exempt millions of his donors and allies in organized labor from the law, but he has done that too.

This is a remarkable thing. The health-care law gives the executive all sorts of powers to promulgate regulations and make judgments, but it does not give the executive the power to decide which aspects of the law will be enforced and which will not, or to establish a different timeline from the one found in the law itself. For all of the power that Congress legally has given the president in this matter, he feels it necessary to take more — illegally. There is no obvious and persuasive legal rationale for the belief that the president can willy-nilly suspend portions of the law or delay their execution. There is still less reason to believe that the president has the unilateral authority to overturn the law’s fundamental requirements, including the requirement that all health-care plans on offer meet certain federal regulations. Honoring the law meant breaking a key promise — “If you like it, you can keep it” — which the president and his advisers knew all along would be the case. What they did not know was how unpopular breaking that promise would prove to be, and so the final breaking of it has been put off, along with the enrollment deadline, until after the midterm elections. The administration is transparently violating the letter of the law to see after its own political interests. That is an intolerable state of affairs.



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