Politics & Policy

Obama’s Imperial Transformation Is Now Complete

Then and Now: President Obama in 2009 and 2014 (Pool Images/Getty)
The president has become everything he ran against.

It was all going to be so different. In the course of a campaign based upon the nebulous promises of “hope” and “change,” Barack Obama vowed amid the Greek columns and fainting admirers that he would restore the country’s balance of power and lead its war-torn partisans into the sunlit uplands of ecumenicalism and peace. In the New York Times, on November 7, 2008, Jonathan Mahler looked forward to the new chapter. Reflecting on the outgoing president and finding him wanting, Mahler lamented that “the power of the president soared to new heights under Bush.” Indeed, Mahler contended, “the assertion and expansion of presidential power is arguably the defining feature of the Bush years.” Pondering “the Senate’s role in our constitutional government,” Mahler concluded that it had been left “withered” and “diminished.” “The story of the United States is in many ways the story of the push and pull between the executive and legislative branches,” he wrote. “Will a new president and newly elected Congress act to undo the excesses of presidential power over the past eight years?”

Barack Obama certainly gave the impression that he would. Noting in 2008 that he “taught constitutional law for ten years,” and in consequence took “the Constitution very seriously,” Obama determined that “the biggest problems that we’re facing right now have to do with George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all.” “That,” the candidate assured his audience, is “what I intend to reverse when I’m president of the United States of America.”

When it has suited his interests, he has been happy to reiterate this position. After he was excoriated by immigration activists in 2011 for having had the temerity to follow the law, the president reminded students at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C., that he was not a king. First, Obama praised his audience for understanding the rules of the American settlement, and then he launched into an impassioned defense of separation of powers of precisely the sort that he had delivered as a senator and as a candidate:

With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportations through executive order, that’s just not the case. Because there are laws on the books that Congress has passed. And I know that everybody here at Bell is studying hard so you know that we’ve got three branches of government. Congress passes the law. The executive branch’s job is to enforce and implement those laws. And then the judiciary has to interpret the laws. There are enough laws on the books by Congress that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system that for me to simply, through executive order, to ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president. 

This was a line that, in one form or another, he repeated more than 20 times. And yet, just one short year after he had told students that he was hamstrung by the rules, the president did precisely what he said he could not, refusing to “enforce and implement” those “very clear” laws and abdicating disgracefully his “appropriate role as president.” Obama called this maneuver “DACA,” although one imagines that James Madison would have come up with a somewhat less polite term.

Evidently, the new approach suited the president. Soon thereafter, he began to make extra-legislative changes to Obamacare, without offering any earnest legal justifications whatsoever; he responded to Congress’s refusal to raise the minimum wage by rewriting the Service Contract Act of 1965; and, as a matter of routine, he took to threatening, cajoling, and mocking Congress, and to informing the country’s lawmakers that by declining to consent to his will they were refusing to do “their jobs.” In Obama’s post-2011 world, it seems, legislators are not free agents but parliamentary subordinates possessed of two choices: either they do what he wants, or they watch him do what he wants. Refusing assent seems to be regarded as an entirely illegitimate option. This, it should be perfectly obvious, is the attitude not of the statesman, but of the mugger. “Give me your wallet,” the ruffian says, “or I will take it by force.” That progressives who once championed the man for his calm and his virtue have taken to twisting themselves into knots in his defense should tell us all we need to know about their broader sincerity — and his.

In foreign affairs, too, President Obama has almost entirely reversed himself. In 2007, he told the Boston Globe that presidents have “no power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.” That President Bush had abused his position, meanwhile, was a mainstay of Obama’s campaign. But, in the last three years, Obama has scoffed derisively at anybody who reminds him of this stance, insisting at each juncture that he is possessed of the “authority” to do exactly as he wishes as commander-in-chief. Since 2011, our anti-war, pro-Congress president has launched two major military endeavors without congressional approval, and has only avoided adding a third thanks to Vladimir Putin’s last-gasp intervention in the Syrian crisis; his attitude toward drones and his capacity to use them in anger would make even Dick Cheney raise an eyebrow; and he has become sanguine even toward the “open-ended war” mandates that he once viciously denounced. This, Jack Goldsmith noted recently in Time magazine, is little short of “breathtaking” — representing such an egregious volte face that historians will likely “puzzle over how Barack Obama the prudent war-powers constitutionalist transformed into a matchless war-powers unilateralist” and left “an astonishing legacy of expanding presidential war powers.” Indeed, so utterly determined has this president been to adopt the emperor’s mantle, the New York Times records, that he went so far as to change his lawyers when the first collection told him that he was breaking the law. Richard Nixon, call your office.

One wonders if there is any potentially helpful theory that the president would now refuse to entertain. In the 2008 Times piece, Jonathan Mahler praised “the filibuster rule,” which “allows a single senator to halt the creep of political passions into the decision-making process by blocking a given vote.” Once upon a time, President Obama agreed with this commendation, holding that the institution was a great protector of American liberty, and railing against those who would seek to curb it — illegally or otherwise. Modest Republican efforts to limit the tool in judicial nominations, Obama claimed in 2005, were illustrative of an “ends justify the means mentality” that would see the “right of free and open debate . . . taken away from the minority party” in the name of short-term expedience. “We’re here to answer to the people, all of the people, not just the ones that are wearing our particular party label,” he said. “What [voters] don’t expect is for one party, be it Republican or Democrat, to change the rules in the middle of the game so they can make all the decisions while the other party is told to sit down and keep quiet.” Even more important: The “nuclear option” — whereby the filibuster is abolished by a simple majority — “doesn’t serve anyone’s best interests and it certainly isn’t what the patriots who founded this democracy had in mind.”

Senator Obama was joined in this judgment by leading Democrats, who together made a stirring case in favor of retention. The judicial filibuster, Harry Reid exclaimed, is “part of the fabric of this institution we call the Senate” and an “integral part of our country’s 214 year history.” Chuck Schumer described the device as “an important check and balance, to be preserved not vaporized.” Dianne Feinstein warned that, “blinded by political passions, some are willing to unravel our government’s fundamental principle of checks and balances.” Patty Murray agreed, accusing Republicans of “attempting to dismantle the checks and balances that our founding fathers created.” Without the mechanism, Murray contended, the Senate might become a “rubber stamp for the president.” And, as so often, Joe Biden put it best, proposing that to do away with the filibuster without the approval of a supermajority was “an example of the arrogance of power” and a “fundamental power grab.”

Those “patriots who founded this democracy” must have changed their minds since 2005, for, when the system proved too destructive to Obama’s agenda, he not only happily endorsed its abolition but got on board with the “nuclear option” that he had once so vehemently denounced. The filibuster was “not what our Founders envisioned,” Obama told the press in November of 2013. And then he chastised those who would defend the mechanism for their reliance upon “arcane procedural tactics.”

Today, the transformation of Barack Obama from wide-eyed idealist to bitter imperator will finally be completed. Amid the glitz and the artifice of Las Vegas, the last vestiges of the one we were waiting for will be swept ignominiously away, leaving only power, cynicism, and partisanship in their stead. There was a time when our 44th president claimed to stand for transparency, modesty, moderation, tolerance, humility, reason, and calm. Today, just feet from Caesars Palace, he will don the robes of the emperor and spin minor discretion into gargantuan usurpation, all norms and touchstones be damned. However convincing are the promises of the ambitious, Lord Acton always has the last laugh.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review


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