"The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, is the very definition of tyranny." - James Madison, The Federalist No. 47
Flailing about following the disastrous first year in his second term, President Barack Obama evidently believes that usurping legislative power is the best means to salvage at least some of his "transformational" goals for our country that he has made the hallmark of his tenure. This quondam professor of constitutional law is on a mission to teach us a lesson or two, and I for one hope we draw the right conclusion from his attempt at pedagogy.
In this situation, the President actually is a victim as well as a malefactor, as every two-term president has discovered since the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution that forbids anyone from being elected to the nation's highest office more than twice, or for ten years. No sooner is the chief executive re-elected, no matter what his margin of victory, he is immediately written off as a "lame duck," because he lacks any prospect of serving beyond that second term.
One does not have to be an admirer of the current president to be critical of term limits. It was no accident that the constitutional framers inserted no term limits anywhere in our nation's fundamental law, for they knew that stability was as important to our form of government as adherence to popular consent. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist No. 72, an ambitious man who knows that nothing he can do can extend his term of office will be tempted to devise some means of making himself "indispensable" rather than quit his high station.
Obama's way is very clear: If Congress, currently divided between Republicans and Democrats, does not approve the legislation he deems necessary for fulfilling his Big Government agenda, he will find a way to impose it himself. It's clear that he's not just talking about issuing executive orders, a tool available to the President since the Depression days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, but actually circumventing the will of Congress.
Of course, the old "con law" professor is thoroughly familiar with the separation of powers by which not only the powers of government are divided into three separate and distinct branches but each of them possesses the constitutional means and personal motives to resist the encroachments of the others. But the Constitution is not sacred to a man who, back when he was in the classroom 20 years or so ago, lamented that the charter of our liberties was a barrier to income redistribution, as indeed it is.
The buzzword of the Obama Administration is now "income inequality." Inveighing against this hardy perennial of the human condition is a conceit only slightly less indefensible than blaming modern economies for "climate change" (aka "global warming"). The value of this ideological fixation is that the problem never goes away, justifying a permanent government commitment to ending what, in fact, can never end.
Alert readers will recall that the War on Poverty that marked the administration of Lyndon Johnson failed to end poverty and, indeed, has perpetuated it, despite trillions of federal dollars being lavished on it. C. Northcote Parkinson famously observed in 1955 that bureaucracies find endless reasons for enlarging and perpetuating themselves. ("Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.") Daily, governments demonstrate why there is no reason to question that astute observation.
Given the never-ending character of the transformational work of "ending" income inequality, the need for a permanent government commitment to that end is inescapable. But if Americans in 2016 actually elect a president not committed to the Obama project (actually, the project of Democrats for 80 years), why, that supposedly valuable bureaucratic establishment would be in jeopardy!
One of the comforting reactions to the President's professed determination to bypass Congress where he can is that there is little he can do beyond issuing orders within his administration. But that fails to consider at least two things: his notion of executive orders goes well beyond filling in the details of existing law and his campaign for executive lawlessness threatens to corrupt public judgment.
There is a significant sector of opinion in America that knows or cares little about constitutional limitations and longs for a society in which mere claims to public largesse trump earning a living. Presidential decrees to boost income or benefits trouble these folks not at all, as long as they "get theirs."
Those of us who still cherish our Constitution and way of life must be extraordinarily vigilant over the corrupt acts of the Obama Administration, and equally determined to resist all attempts to institutionalize them.
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of "Taking Journalism Seriously: 'Objectivity' as a Partisan Cause" (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org