The Unitary Executive becomes a singularity
Nothing about President Obama’s upcoming State of the Union address is a surprise. Of course he’s going to push the phony issue of “income inequality” as a massive distraction from the failures of ObamaCare, his domestic economic policies, his foreign policy, and all the rest of it. Of course he’s going to double down on the use of dictatorial powers to neutralize Congress and upset the Constitutional balance of power. If the day ever comes that a president uses this political ritual to say “I screwed up, I’m sorry I was wrong, and I apologize for savagely attacking the people who were right all along,” it will not be Barack Obama.
The status of the Union will never be downgraded from “strong” in the first paragraph of one of these speeches, no matter how badly the country is doing. The subsequent paragraphs – about a thousand of them, if previous Obama speeches serve as any guide – will always be devoted to explaining “the challenges that remain,” and why the guy with low approval ratings parked behind the podium should be given even more power and money to address them.
This is not unique to Obama’s agenda or political style. No chief executive can afford to shut the coffin lid on the first year of his second term by declaring himself chastised and penitent. Lame ducks do not waddle around Washington inviting everyone to sign the cast that will cover their broken legs for the next three years. The president is also the titular head of his party. The party needs to be motivated and energized, at least for a couple of days. Liberal presidents have a very easy formula for doing that: announce a hugely expensive agenda packed with wish-list goodies, talk about the cruelty and greed of everyone who opposes it, and let the editorial-page battles begin. If nothing else, Obama will be able to count on plenty of ink from even his more disenchanted media supporters about his boundless compassion and good intentions. That counts for a lot, when you’re trying to trick three hundred million people into forgetting that you grabbed a trillion dollars of their money and used it to destroy health care.
It’s also easy to rack up a few political points by running against a perpetually unpopular Congress. The big political lesson to be drawn from Shutdown Theater is that the public may not like or trust Big Government – the horrendously incompetent launch of ObamaCare has driven public faith in the State and our political system to remarkable lows – but they grow very angry when they think the political machinery they distrust has seized up entirely. For all of this new skepticism, the public still expects government to function. Obama will attempt to reformulate this desire into support for an activist agenda. If people want government to function, that means they want it to Do Something. The President will present a long list of things he wants to do, while equating resistance to his agenda with that hellish shutdown-happy gridlock.
What makes this State of the Union address so disturbing, as its outlines emerge, is Obama’s plan to turn his already unitary office into a singularity. According to the Washington Post, his team thinks he hasn’t been arrogant or dictatorial enough:
Senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer outlined the lessons learned in a three-page memo that Obama discussed with his Cabinet in recent weeks, according to several administration officials who have read the document.
Among its conclusions is that Obama, a former state legislator and U.S. senator, too often governed more like a prime minister than a president. In a parliamentary system, a prime minister is elected by lawmakers and thus beholden to them in ways a president is not.
As a result, Washington veterans have been brought into the West Wing to emphasize an executive style of governing that aims to sidestep Congress more often. A central ambition of Obama’s presidency — to change the way Washington works — has effectively been discarded as a distraction in a time of hardening partisanship.
Even Democrats on Capitol Hill have quietly grumbled that Obama doesn’t work with them closely enough. Obviously, Republicans are even less happy with the “unitary executive” approach, which is something liberals spent many years loudly complaining about, until abruptly and universally falling silent in 2009 for some reason.
The American president may not be “beholden” to lawmakers, but he still isn’t one. There is a separation of powers between the executive branch and the legislature, which Obama has worked for years to erase, with a frightening degree of success – abetted by congressional Democrats who made a political calculation to surrender the powers of Congress to their Party leader, confident in the knowledge they can almost instantly take them back if they find themselves opposing a Republican president in 2017. You won’t believe how obsessed the media becomes with the prerogatives of Congress, the separation of powers, and the correct procedure for amending laws, ten minutes after a Republican president is sworn in. If Democrats don’t hold both houses of Congress on that day, you’ll also suddenly hear a great deal about respect for the minority, and the filibuster will one again become the bright blazing torch held aloft in Lady Liberty’s steady hand, instead of a dusty old relic of political arcana that serves only as a foolish obstacle to Progress.
Obama’s model of the unitary executive – imposing his rule by executive order, modifying legislation as he sees fit, turning Congress into a rubber-stamp legislature and reducing the opposition party to a debating society with an exceptionally strict dress code – is an offense against the people of the United States, not just elected representatives in Washington. It represents the wholesale transfer of power into the hands of someone you’ll never get to vote against, someone who cannot be punished or restrained with anything short of an impeachment Armageddon.
The old chestnut holds that Congress is always unpopular, but every state and district basically supports its own representatives; the other 49 states, and the knuckleheads they vote for, are the problem. The reality behind that amusing dichotomy is that members of Congress are more accountable to voters. They go through tough legislative battles that leave scars upon their popularity. The messy legislative procedures that drag congressional approval down are also a mechanism that protects our liberties. That mechanism looks a bit rusty and unappealing these days, but you’ll hate what happens when it stops working altogether.
One of the intractable problems with our centralized government is its arrogance. Everything from its misbegotten programs to their bumbling execution can be traced to the arrogant conviction that Washington knows best, and the main reason its plans have not secured Utopia is the stubborn intransigence of dissenters. Appearing on CBS’ “Meet the Press” Sunday, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) told Bob Schieffer that Obama should use the SOTU to deliver the kind of humble apology he knows we’ll never get:
And, you know, for the State of the Union, one of the things President Obama really oughta do is look in the TV camera and say to the over five million Americans all across this country who’ve had their health insurance canceled because of ObamaCare, to look in the camera and say, “I’m sorry. I told you if you like your health insurance plan, you can keep it.
“I told you if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. And that wasn’t true. I’m sorry.” But then, Bob, here’s the real kicker. If you’re really sorry, you don’t just say you’re sorry. You actually do something to fix the problem. The pattern we’ve seen over and over again with this president is he says he’s sorry and he expresses outrage but then he doesn’t fix the problem. He keeps doing it over and over again.
Do you think any corporate CEO enjoys admitting he made a hideous mistake that alienated consumers and cost his company a bundle? Of course not. They do it because they have to. They discontinue failed programs, sack their architects, and grovel before customers because their survival depends on it. Obama’s survival does not. He’ll get more mileage out of firing up his supporters and de-legitimizing his critics. He sits at the head of a gigantic system that believes it can never run out of money, will never be prosecuted for fraud, and cannot lose its “customers” to competitors.
Obama, and those of like mind, are driven by the evangelical conviction that his system’s only flaw is that it’s not big enough. There is still too much room for what he thinks of as intransigence, but others call liberty. You are still allowed to make too many mistakes. Even within the realm of State control, you’re still allowed to cast too many unwise votes; your representatives have too much to say about the course our unitary executive charts for the nation. It’s so much more efficient to have one person calling all the shots, don’t you think? Then we’d have no “gridlock” at all.