Obama Is a Symptom, Not the Cause

by Michael Auslin

Mario, I agree that every American should read Senator Cruz’s Wall Street Journal op-ed. But I think Cruz misses a point, one that Kevin captured in his awesome rant yesterday, and which I wrote about in articles in Politico and at The Week. Namely, Obama is setting the stage for “presidential dictatorship” as you rightly call it, because the presidency, and he in particular, is already imperial in nature. Enormous, non-constitutional influence and power has accrued to the office of chief executive since Woodrow Wilson and especially FDR long ago changed the sensitive balance of power the Founding Fathers intended.

Obama’s lawlessness, of which I assume we could probably find examples in Republican administrations, as well, comes about in no small part from the increased deference paid to the one political position in the country that has become the symbol of the nation. If the presidency were still the far more limited position that the Founders intended, if the president were simply an “officer” of the people, as Hamilton argued in the Federalist Papers, it is hard to imagine a mere head of government getting away with what the president, in all his 21st-century majesty, is allowed. No mere prime minister, or simple chief executive, would likely long survive politically if he so capriciously decided which laws to enforce and which to ignore.

Yes, the problem is particularly acute because Obama is the avatar for the hopes and dreams of the progressive elites who will never hold him to account (except, perhaps, for failing to push leftward even more quickly). It is also a danger because Obama is perfectly comfortable, indeed feels it’s morally righteous, to act in an illegal, arbitrary manner when his ideological agenda cannot be enacted through constitutional methods.

But Obamaism is merely a symptom of a system that is breaking down, just as Caesarism was the most perceptive and decisive policy in an era of Roman republican collapse. Obama may be pushing farther than any other president, as Cruz writes, but he is dong so in a corrupted political environment in which he is merely taking advantage of the awesome influence his position confers upon him and the power the courts have handed to the presidency.

The great Roman historian H. H. Scullard explained why Caesarism survived after Augustus restored the fiction of the Republic. Augustus’s role, he wrote, “had no strict constitutional significance and did not provide any legal basis for his power; rather it only meant that he had more prestige, more moral authority than any other individual in the State . . . and it was the only method by which men had secured the carrying out of their wishes without having to resort to direct orders [or force].” The parallel is of course not exact, but it is closer than many recognize.

The better solution is to revive the Constitution and return to the Founders’ concept of a limited chief executive. One way to do this is to think seriously about how to separate off the enormously popular and influential perquisites of the position of head of state from the more restricted role of head of government. A president who does not have his own personal air force or praetorian guard, who is not the national focus for celebrating and grieving, would be reduced in his ability to overawe his legislative opponents. Such a president would be more easily held to account, since challenges to his arbitrariness would not be as easily magnified into a national drama akin to regicide.

In truth, such a system would almost certainly have discarded Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton for their breaches of law, but done so in a far less nationally traumatic way. It also would have long ago consigned a ruthless, inexperienced parvenu like Barack Obama to political retirement. That this issue is a matter of national debate is a clear indication of just how much lawlessness (along with governing incompetence) is becoming the norm in Washington, D.C.

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