In a recent email to supporters, President Obama lamented the frustrating inadequacy of his office. “There’s only so much I can do on my own” without Congress, he confessed.
As a matter of constitutional interpretation, he’s right. But in practice, the President has shown a distinct contempt for the legal limits on his power.
Obama’s imperial presidency has manifested itself in many ways. Often he willfully neglects his constitutional duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” As we’ve seen with education, immigration, and health care, suspending the law amounts to rewriting the law.
Other times, the President is more direct. The legislative power may be vested in Congress, but that didn’t stop him from rewriting welfare legislation on his own, hollowing out the successful federal work requirements.
Unfortunately, it appears that this is only the beginning of Obama’s imperialism.
Once liberated from the constraints of reelection, he wasted little time signaling his enthusiasm for unilateral action in his second term.
“Congress is tough right now,” he recently declared, “but that’s not going to stop me.”
Armed with electoral immunity, the President is also more candid in justifying his actions.
[W]here Congress is unwilling to act, I will take whatever administrative steps that I can in order to do right by the American people.
From this perspective, the legislature is more of an inconvenience than one of the three co-equal branches of government. Constitutional prerogatives are up for grabs; whoever is most willing to write the laws wins.
The President’s view of how our system works is not only dangerous, but it also flatly contradicts the Founders’ understanding of government.
The President sees no need to bother with all the arguing, deal-making, compromising, rivalries—in a word, politics—involved in the constitutional order. Reserving to Congress its lawmaking authority is an unnecessary obstacle to progress.
But our system was intentionally designed for messy political fights. The Founders understood that the alternative is even worse. Experience with Britain taught them the dangers of a government that tended toward the accumulation of powers.
Despite his fondness for mocking those who distrust government, President Obama accidentally vindicates the Founders’ fear of tyranny in American when he boasts, “We’re going to do everything we can, wherever we can, with or without Congress, to make things happen.”
With no sign in sight of the President slowing his imperial march, it would be naïve to hope for the kind of modesty he feigns in emails. Rather, it is the duty of Congress to oppose his encroachments. With so much at stake this fall—from defunding Obamacare to cutting government spending—it is a critical time for Congress to do its job.