If the reports that have trickled out of the White House over the past few days are any indication of what is to come, we will this evening be treated to a stern presidential rebuke, the dull restatement of a political agenda with which we are all depressingly familiar, and, intermittently at least, a series of indecorous threats. “Mr. Obama,” yesterday’s Wall Street Journal tells us, “will emphasize his intention to use unilateral presidential authority — bypassing Congress when necessary — to an extent not seen in his previous State of the Union speeches.” If it wishes to preserve the integrity of the American settlement, Congress must push back — and hard.
There is a solid reason why previous State of the Union speeches have not featured declarations of “universal presidential authority,” and that is that such declarations are rotten, unseemly, and insulting to the republican ideal. It is regrettable enough on its own that the head of the executive branch elects each year to play the starring role in an ersatz performance of the British Speech from the Throne without that executive’s adding insult to injury and using the opportunity to explain to his hosts how he intends to circumvent their power. The president of the United States, it should be restated over and over and over again, is not the country’s elected monarch but a cog in a complicated machine whose moving parts include the House and the Senate and that, with a few limited exceptions, cannot legally work without them. Would that this one recognized it.
Instead, as we career into his sixth year in office, he appears to be going the other way. “Obama has surpassed George W. Bush in the level of circumvention of Congress and the assertion of excessive presidential power,” argues
Jonathan Turley, a constitutional-law professor at George Washington University. “I don’t think it’s a close question.” Indeed it is not, as both our malleable health-care-reform law and our pliant immigration rules suggest. And yet it’s not just what this president does
that so alarms but what he says
, too. Why is Obama so frequently charged with aspiring to be a tyrant? Well, because Barack Obama talks like an aspiring tyrant — implying as a matter of course that the behavior of his opposition and the legitimacy of that opposition are in some way related, and warning that he will step in if the country’s turbulent legislators refuse to get with his program. As the likes of Turley have reluctantly noticed, this approach simply fails to tally with the Constitution — which, suffice it to say, contains no provision that renders itself moot in the event that Congress refuses to acquiesce to the president’s whims.
Obama’s metastasizing do-what-I-want-or-else approach is redolent of a “threat,” Senator Rand Paul complained fairly this week. It is, yes. But should this really surprise? After all, this president has made a habit of such exhortations. Cast your minds back, if you will, to last year’s proposed Syrian intervention, during which Obama consistently argued that Congress’s role in matters of war and peace was little more than that of a Bureau of Friendly Advice — useful in a pinch, but without any binding power. Even when he was rebuffed by lawmakers of both parties and by a supermajority of the public, the request for permission came couched in the patois of condescension: “While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization,” the president granted, with palpable irritation, “I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective.”