, Salem, MA

January 31, 2014

Our view: It's time to rein in an imperial presidency

The Salem News

---- — Americans want action, President Barack Obama said Tuesday night in his State of the Union address, and if a recalcitrant Congress won’t act, he will.

That’s as clear a definition of an “imperial presidency” as any we’ve heard since a disgraced Richard Nixon declared to interviewer David Frost that, if the president does something, it is, by definition, legal.

All presidents lay out ambitious agendas in their State of the Union addresses. The struggle then becomes rallying support among congressmen and senators for those initiatives.

But Obama said bluntly Tuesday night that, if he cannot get Congress to act on his agenda, he’ll bypass the legislative branch altogether and enact his proposals through executive orders.

“America does not stand still, and neither do I,” Obama declared.

Unbelievably, Obama’s declaration was received with thunderous applause from the very legislators whose power he pledged to usurp. Sometimes, new laws are found to be not as popular in their execution as they were in their planning — Obamacare is but the most recent example. Members of Congress, a generally spineless lot, like nothing better than to be shriven of responsibility for the edicts that come out of Washington.

It’s easy to score rhetorical points by beating up on Congress, whose collective approval rating hovers in the teens. Hardly a day passes without another story lamenting the “gridlock” that keeps one well-intentioned program after another from advancing.

But the fact remains that we are a divided, philosophically fractured nation. Congress is not the cause of the fracturing, merely a reflection of it.

In a one-party echo chamber like Massachusetts, we hear endlessly about how obstinate Republicans stand in the way of all the good works government strives to do. But it’s important to consider that other Americans in other parts of the country elected those Republicans and sent them to Washington to represent their interests, which in many cases consist of standing in front of the steamroller of big government and saying, “No more.”

Indeed, the Republican Party itself is in the midst of a schism between its traditional elements and an activist “tea party” wing that finds old-school Republicans indistinguishable from Democrats themselves.

This is not a flaw in our government but a design feature. It is supposed to be difficult to make sweeping changes in law such as redesigning the delivery of health care and the insurance that pays for it or such as rewriting the rules of immigration. These changes affect millions of lives; enacting them should take a great deal of deliberation and consensus-building.

Obama told us Tuesday night he wants action on a number of issues: He wants immigration reform, an increase in the federal minimum wage, a new tax credit for low-income families without children and expanded access to early childhood education.

If Congress won’t give him what he wants, Obama says he will take it, with a stroke of his executive pen.

All of these issues deserve robust debate. If they truly have merit, let their supporters convince the doubters of their worth. Let them win support through debate and votes on the floor of the House and Senate.

That’s the function of a legislature in a representative republic. If we had wanted to be ruled by an “imperial president,” we shouldn’t have bothered to throw out King George III.