Almost a year ago, I wrote on the Corner that President Obama was not the cause of today’s constitutional tensions, but rather a symptom of an imperial presidency that has grown far beyond what the Founders intended. A chief executive who was not also head of state and symbol of the nation would be easier to counterbalance than the magnified president of the early 21st century.
While I still think that’s true, Obama is doing his best to prove that indeed he is the problem. The latest but perhaps most serious danger is over his proposed unilateral amnesty for millions of illegal aliens. The lack of critical attention this showdown is getting except among conservative circles is leading many to assume a “been there-done that” attitude, namely, that Obama is not doing anything different from his predecessors. But when serious commentators across the political spectrum begin sounding the tocsin, it is time for the rest of the country to pay attention. When Charles Cooke’s homepage piece powerfully predicts “chaos” and a “slow, tragic descent into … monarchy”; when the unflappable Ross Douthat decries Obama’s “will to power” and “creeping caudillismo”; and when liberal constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley calls Obama’s actions a “tipping point,” then maybe something rather serious is happening.
In a Twitter exchange with Charles, described in his piece, RealClearPolitics’s Sean Trende hits the nail on the head in his description of what is happening (though like Charles, I disagree with his solution): What is being undermined are the norms on which our system rests. Once those begin to go, they are extremely difficult to reassemble. Instead, that slow, irreversible slide towards ever-more destruction of laws and customs becomes the rule of the day.
That, then, leads to the obligatory Rome reference. No, we are not Rome and Barack Obama is not Julius Caesar. But he is, perhaps analogous to Sulla, whose crossing of hitherto sacrosanct lines and blatant disregard for timeless norms set the Republic on a dangerous path into chaos. What Sulla represented was the idea that anything was now conceivable, even though he justified his actions as responses to those taken by his political opponent Marius. Yet what he did could well be called the tipping point, and only inertia in the Republic’s system kept it going for another nearly half-century. As Julius Caesar crept towards the Rubicon, all of Rome could see it coming; all knew that two irresistible forces (Caesar and Pompey) were about to collide, yet the norms of restraint had been so eaten away, and creative politics so attenuated, that there was no chance of avoiding the explosion.
What Barack Obama sows in 2014 may not be reaped for years or decades. But it eventually will be reaped, unless the political leadership of this country today and tomorrow shows far more wisdom, self-restraint, and civic duty than it does now.