A President Becalmed Grasps for Power He May Not Have

by John Fund

A year ago, President Obama was fresh from his reelection victory and filled his State of the Union message with bold plans for everything from immigration to gun control. Since then his job-approval rating has fallen from 52 percent down to just over 43 percent in the Real Clear Politics average of all polls. Obamacare, his signature legislative accomplishment, is fodder for every late-night comedian and even has Democrats worrying in public that it might be fiscally unsustainable.

It’s now clear that President Obama is politically weakened and that his dreams of a legislative home run are now merely a field of dreams. But Obama is determined to make 2014 “a year of action,” which is why under the tutelage of new presidential aide John Podesta he has decided to dramatically expand his assertions of executive power. In tonight’s State of the Union, he proclaimed: “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.” He then announced a dozen new executive orders, some unremarkable and some dubious, such as his unilateral decision demanding that businesses doing work for the federal government pay a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, jacked up some 40 percent from the current rate of $7.25.

The Constitution didn’t envision such sweeping unilateral exercises of power within a government of divided powers. As Texas senator Ted Cruz points out in today’s Wall Street Journal: “The Obama administration has been so brazen in its attempts to expand federal power that the Supreme Court has unanimously rejected the Justice Department’s efforts to expand federal power nine times since January 2012.” Just today (Tuesday) came a potential tenth — a three-judge federal-appeals court unanimously found that the Obama administration violated the Freedom of Information Act in trying to keep secret the government’s data on how much individual retailers take in from the food-stamp program. One of the three judges, Jane Kelly, is an Obama appointee.

The area where President Obama has exercised unilateral power most egregiously is Obamacare: He has overridden the statutory law at least 15 times to delay or change the law’s written provisions. In the past, both Democratic and Republican presidents have worked with Congress to make changes in major laws that have been passed. But not this president.

President Obama proclaimed that much of the law was working, touting the example of a single mom from Arizona named Amanda Shelley. Earlier this month, she had emergency surgery after enrolling in Obamacare. “Just one week earlier, Amanda said, that surgery would’ve meant bankruptcy,” Obama boasted tonight.

But there are many real-life examples of problems under Obamacare that the president didn’t mention. Out in the audience tonight was Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a man Obama called his best Republican friend in Congress when they served together in the Senate. But Senator Coburn is retiring from Congress in order to better treat a recurrence of prostate cancer. He told MSNBC today that his new Obamacare policy will no longer cover treatment from his longtime cancer specialist. Coburn, a successful physician, can afford to pay out of his own pocket for the care he feels he needs. But the vast majority of Americans couldn’t do so — without going bankrupt.

President Obama did hold out a couple of olive branches to Congress tonight. Rather than insist on a comprehensive solution to immigration as he did during his 2013 State of the Union message, he was largely silent on the subject tonight. But very few members of Congress I’ve spoken too believe that the president will accept more piecemeal legislation that addresses specific immigration reforms.

Rhetorically, President Obama called for “a year of action” tonight. What is far more likely is that 2014 will be another year that, like this one, leaves almost two-thirds of Americans convinced the country is on the wrong track. The most significant action we may see this year is a slew of executive orders that ignore or unilaterally change the law. His most significant legacy may ultimately be an erosion of the rule of law — an imperial approach that future presidents will be tempted to emulate when their political agenda is thwarted.