Yesterday New York Times columnist Ross Douthat spent some time discussing three influences that have led, in his estimation, towards President Obama’s “imperial” presidency. As a response to last week’s executive order on immigration, conservatives (and others) have raised questions about our system of separation of powers, checks and balances, and the role of the President.
My goal here is not to debate immigration or President Obama himself. Rather, I simply want to raise what I feel to be pertinent questions about the state of the American Presidency. Here I would agree substantially with Douthat’s first point:
..public expectations. Across the last century, the presidency’s powers have increased in a symbiosis with changing public expectations about the office. Because Congress is unsexy, frustrating and hard to follow, mass democracy seems to demand a single iconic figure into whom desires and aspirations and hatreds can be poured.
And pressure on this talisman to act…is ever increasing and intense. When presidents aren’t seen as “doing something,” they’re castigated as lame ducks; when they take unilateral action, as we’ve seen in the last week of media coverage, they suddenly seem to get their groove back. And that’s something that even a principled critic of executive power can find ever harder to pass up.
Our contemporary, fast-paced, and media-driven world requires quick and decisive action. Congress and the courts don’t provide this. Only a President does. That’s great, as far as executive optics go. In terms of a functioning democracy, it begins to look problematic.
Whether or not you agree with President Obama’s order last week, the fact that such actions can be taken and may be considered the mark of “real leadership” in our democracy has a troubling aspect. That’s true whether the person in the Oval Office is George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama.
And yet: if taking decisive and governmentally unbalanced action like this is the way to build your legacy as a President, what is to be done? The argument could be made that such developments are inevitable in our time. Quick decisions need to be made, and we cannot wait around while Congress or Court dawdles.
If we are saying, though, that the needs of the present are more important than a functioning democracy, I have deep concerns. To be sure: we are not in any kind of dictatorship in the United States. But we are out of balance. The Executive is (and has been in a number of presidential administrations) just too powerful. Human beings like strong leaders that can make definitive decisions. When such a leader makes wise decisions, the people prosper. When they make bad ones they falter. That’s what the rule of a king or emperor is like. But that is not what America is supposed to be…and we must make sure that it never gets there. Not even by relatively innocent steps taken.
Despite the complexities of our world, there’s no cause to abandon the wisdom of checks and balances. There is no reason to bypass the democratic process. I suspect, though, that it may be time to reassess how our process works and ask real questions about how American principles can persevere even if it means changing the forms we use to do so.