Since Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 midterms, Obama has relied more and more on assertions of executive authority rather than pursuing the strategy Bill Clinton adopted in 1995, working with the new majority and claiming ownership of their agenda. He has run roughshod over precedent to make recess appointments for unpopular appointments even while the Senate remained in session, which has snared an NLRB decision in federal court. The HHS contraception mandate threatens to rewrite the First Amendment and put the federal government in the position of essentially licensing religious expression.
This month, Obama unilaterally decided to selectively enforce immigration law rather than work with Congress to change it, opening a temporary window for illegal immigrants to step forward and join the same workforce where Americans already struggle to find jobs. That also got a positive response from Obama’s supporters, but will it actually work? Greta Van Susteren wrote that anyone who qualifies for this “prosecutorial discretion” would have to be crazy to volunteer for it:
“To get that work permit, the person here illegally would have to admit being here illegally (why else would the person need a work permit?) and provide all sorts of personal info (e.g. where to find the person!) In other words, the person would be putting a big target on his or her back for ICE deportation in two years when the program expires (if not extended.) …Or, perhaps sooner if Governor Romney is elected and he decides to cancel the temporary program? Answer: no one.”
Whether or not Obama is extending presidential power past its limits, American voters like assertions of executive authority. We like strong leadership, especially in the face of an eternally-squabbling Congress. There is a certain charm to a chief executive who decides that the best – or only – solution to the Gordian Knot of partisan gridlock is to prorogue the legislative branch, figuratively speaking, and take matters into his own hands. Nor is that a phenomenon particular to Americans, in this age or any other; there is a strong human compulsion to welcome authoritarian power, especially when perceived to be exercised on our behalf.
For Americans, however, it’s a phenomenon filled with irony. Our nation was created in the crucible of a fight over the abuse of executive power, and our Constitution was designed to ensure that the President could never grow more powerful than Congress. James Madison and the other authors of the Constitution carefully crafted the terms of government so that radical Congresses and Presidents could stomp on the rights of Americans, and that neither could act without the other.
Perhaps that is why most if not all of these executive actions end up as miserable failures, even those first hailed as political courage and genius. That’s true of practically every President from George Washington forward, but the lesson seems especially acute in the case of Barack Obama.
Obama’s presidency started in crisis, with the US economy shedding jobs at a rate unseen in decades and the financial system just starting to find its footing after the previous administration’s assertion of executive authority in the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Congress authorized TARP as a way to buy up the mortgage-backed securities that had poisoned the financial markets after the collapse of the housing bubble, but the Bush administration turned it into a blank check to bail out the banks.
Obama not only continued that process, but then used TARP to engineer political bankruptcies for automakers that preserved contracts for the unions while putting taxpayers on the hook for the grossly underfunded pension plans that had hobbled Detroit.
TARP was never popular, but few raised serious objections in the fall of 2008 as panic gripped the electorate. By the spring of 2009, though, it turned politically toxic. Outrage over the way TARP money got spent by both the Bush and Obama administrations spawned the Tea Party, and later the Occupy protests.
The latter appears to have petered out, but the Tea Party drove Democrats from control of the House in the 2010 midterms, and has already claimed at least one Republican scalp in the 2012 primaries, Senator Dick Lugar, who lost to Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock in April.