Unlike most American presidents, Barack Obama took his inaugural oath of office twice, the latter affirmation serving as a private belt-and-braces remedy to a verbal mistake, the former as the usual public spectacle. Four years later, he repeated the trick, promising fealty first during an exclusive White House ceremony, and then, a day later, before the nation at large. Thus did our 44th president bring to a remarkable four the number of times that he had solemnly sworn to faithfully execute the Office, and, to the best of his ability, to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. As far as I am aware, no other commander-in-chief has so ardently professed his zeal.
And yet, despite this unprecedented quartet of repetitions, the pledge appears to have rather faded in the imagination. Since the Democratic party lost control of the House in 2010, Obama has taken to speaking as if the United States were in an existential crisis. Touting his preferred unemployment legislation, the president promised
dramatically in 2011 that “if Congress won’t act, I will.” A year later, adumbrating
his coveted cyber-security measures, he threatened the same. In 2013, while selling his plans to alleviate climate change, Obama doggedly assured
the press that “if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.” In June, slamming the legislature for declining to acquiesce to his agenda, Obama let
viewers know that if the House of Representatives wouldn’t act on immigration, he would have to do it himself. And, in the early part of this week, the New York Times reported
that the treaty-making power was to be abused as well, with the president attempting to establish a new climate agreement by taking a solo end-run around the Senate. In his second term especially, this has become a favorite approach — the product of a deep-seated confidence that the country is more closely wedded to his political program than it is to the settled legal order. “I promise you,” Obama affirmed
earlier in the month, “the American people don’t want me just standing around twiddling my thumbs and waiting for Congress to get something done.”
Democracies being volatile things, it is difficult to know precisely what the American people “want” the president to do. Either way, it is wholly irrelevant to the question at hand. I am quite sure that it is frustrating for Barack Obama that he happens to be president of the United States at the same time as the House of Representatives is controlled by the Republican party. I daresay, too, that it was irritating for George W. Bush that he happened to be president at a time during which there were insufficient legislators to indulge his own immigration plans. But, one might ask, “So what?” However they might have conceived of themselves and their agendas, neither our 43rd nor 44th presidents were possessed of a cosmic right to see their programs codified into law. Instead, they were and are but one cog in a large machine — a machine, it should be remembered, that deliberately stations the executive as one of the least important players within the legislative field. In America, presidents enjoy the right to use their limited powers to get as much of what they want as is possible. But they enjoy nothing more. When his ambitions are tempered by the ambitions of the other elected figures within the structure . . . well, nothing happens. That, I’m afraid, is how separation of powers works.
More importantly, perhaps, that’s how separation of powers is supposed to work. At the time of writing, the United States is not in extremis — and nor are its political arrangements historically egregious. Instead, the system is humming along nicely. There is little point in having a written constitution if the president can merely free himself from its restrictions when he deems them irresponsible. Nor, for that matter, is there much virtue in the people’s sending men and women to Washington to serve as a check on the president if the very act of being checked provokes him into circumventing the rules. Which is to say that Obama is irritated not with his inability to deal with imminent catastrophe, but with business as usual, and his lamentations amount not to a Churchillian roar but to a whine. On a human level, one can empathize. It is never nice to be thwarted when you believe that you have the only acceptable answers. On a legal level, though, one can do little more than shrug. Congress was elected, too.
Typically, these principles have enjoyed broad acceptance in America. No doubt they will again. If next year a Republican Senate turns the tables and renders President Obama the “obstructionist,” do we expect to hear Mitch McConnell explaining that he has been forced by Obama’s “unique” intransigence to pass laws without the president’s signature? Will we see a McConnell Senate seeking to form GOP-friendly proto-treaties with other nations? Will the House of Representatives start to issue the pardons that the president won’t on the grounds that they are “too important” to wait for? Might John Boehner begin to command the armed forces and to fly around on Air Force One, justifying his appropriation on the grounds that Obama is uniquely absent on the world stage and that the consequences of his absence are too deleterious to allow? Will the legislative branch announce that it “can’t wait,” and cut the corporate tax rate on its own? Of course not. Clearly, these would all represent intolerable hijackings of the executive branch’s role. One wonders, then, why we are we expected to indulge the practice the other way round. Are appeals to expedience less problematic when the president, and not the legislature, is the one indulging in the seizure? Congress has considered the Dream Act 24 times in the last twelve years. Each time — regrettably, in my view — it has declined to pass it. In what possible universe does this suggest that the president should go it alone?