“Leader, n. A person who influences a group of people toward the achievement of a goal.” – Webster
“Dictator, n. A leader who holds and/or abuses an extraordinary amount of personal power, especially the power to make laws without effective restraint by a legislative assembly.” – Wikipedia
In the days before President Barack Obama’s fifth annual State of the Union Address, the president along with his administration’s spokesmen made clear their intentions to act unilaterally – that is without the approval of congress – if the national legislature failed to agree to the president’s policy demands. “Where congress isn’t acting, I will act on my own,” the president said during his weekly radio address.
His remarks signaled not so much a change in approach to governing as a remarkable and arrogant public admission of what he has been doing since taking office. Barack Obama has run roughshod over a weak and rudderless congress, enacting by executive order that which he cannot achieve legislatively. Even when he has had legislative success, as with the enactment of the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare, he has routinely at his whim altered the law.
From immigration to energy virtually no part of the nation’s policy agenda has been immune to presidential action by either executive order or the promulgation of regulations. For the past five years congress has had little effective voice in the nation’s governance. Democrats, who hold a majority in the U.S. Senate, are content to line up like sheep behind every presidential initiative. House Speaker John Boehner, leader of congressional Republicans, has been unable to offer either vision or leadership.
Thus the playing field has been effectively ceded to the president who is more than willing to act without congressional input or approval. This is not what the nation’s Founding Fathers intended. Power in our national government was divided among three branches to provide for a system of checks and balances. No one branch was to become dominate over another. While all presidents tend to take an expansive view of their position within the federal structure, outside of wartime none have grabbed as much executive power as has Barack Obama.
Obama apologists will argue that the president is showing leadership by acting on issues where congress has failed to reach consensus. But there is a fine line between leadership and dictatorship. Some presidents have been highly skilled, such as Lyndon Johnson, or highly effective; think Ronald Reagan in working with congress to accomplish their legislative goals. Those two presidents took the federal government in opposite directions, but both worked within the confines and lived up to the spirit of constitutional government.
Although blessed with exceptional oratorical skills, President Obama has shown no aptitude for effective legislating. Have served a scant four years in the U.S. Senate – and campaigning most of that time for the presidency – he never developed legislating ability. That carried over to his presidency where he has been stunning lax at legislative grunt work while imperious to the point of dictatorial in exercising executive power.
Such an approach to governing creates a climate ripe for abuse. An administration accustomed to trampling congress easily does the same when it comes to individual rights. The NSA has invaded the privacy rights of ordinary Americans. The IRS has targeted conservative groups for harassment. The Justice Department has investigated journalists. All are logical extensions of an authoritarian administration run amuck.
Not satisfied with by-passing congress, the Obama Administration is now working to supersede the courts. The IRS is working on a new set of rules limiting the free speech rights of 504c4 organizations recently upheld by the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United case. Numerous groups conduct lobbying and limited political activity under the 501c4 designation. Conservative groups have been much more effective at utilizing the designation, so the Obama IRS is working to curb their ability to function in direct contravention of the Supreme Court ruling. The issue likely will again land before the high court, but not before handcuffing such groups in the 2014 and possibly 2016 elections – which is the goal of the IRS rulemaking.
Throughout the course of U.S. history presidential power has ebbed and flowed. The current imbalance of power is extreme, and given recent presidential pronouncements it is going to become more so in the months ahead. The time has come for congressional Republicans to make a concerted effort to curb this presidential power grab before the pendulum swings so far it cannot swing back.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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