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.