President Obama is readying to unleash a variety of executive powers to circumvent Congress and push his agenda. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said that a review of mechanisms was under way to “get the job done across a front of issues.” The president claims he has to resort to extraordinary methods because of partisan gridlock, but he has learned the wrong lessons from his failed freshman year in office. Mr. Obama’s initiatives haven’t stalled because of partisanship but because they are transparently bad for America.
It’s odd that the president and his apologists blame partisanship for his legislative problems. Mr. Obama came into office with a filibuster-proof Democratic Senate majority, the largest since the Jimmy Carter era, and the most Democratic House members since the early 1990s. Those comfortable majorities should have meant smooth sailing for Mr. Obama’s legislative agenda, and some of his early initiatives, such as the so-called stimulus package, passed fairly easily. Republicans were shunted aside unceremoniously and could not stop the liberal juggernaut.
The reason Mr. Obama began to run into problems had less to do with partisanship than with public opposition to his ideological agenda.
When the ambiguous “hope and change” theme was replaced with a series of hard-left policies, America balked. A Feb. 8 Gallup survey shows that Mr. Obama suffered 60 percent or worse disapproval ratings on his economic policies, health care proposals and budget deficit management. Resistance in Congress reflects the mood of the electorate, and the critical push-back comes from within the Democratic Party. Previously safe congressional seats are suddenly in play, and many members of Congress wonder if they will soon be joining the swelling ranks of the unemployed.
A prudent president would understand that his policies are the problem and move to the center to give moderates in his party room to breathe. Instead, Mr. Obama is seeking ways to advance his agenda by circumventing Congress, even though Democrats will bear the brunt of the blame in November.
Exploiting executive power is nothing new for Mr. Obama. He has appointed more executive-branch policy “czars” than any of his predecessors. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a liberal West Virginia Democrat, sent a letter to the White House in February 2009 expressing concern that a surfeit of czars can “threaten the Constitutional system of checks and balances.” But last fall, Mr. Obama pressured Democrats in the Senate to kill legislation that would have brought his czars under congressional oversight.
Mr. Obama claimed emergency powers to reshape two of the Big Three auto manufacturers. He has sought the authority to assume extraordinary powers to deal with cyberthreats and purported climate change. He has used executive orders to pursue pet causes, such as EO 13502, which effectively banned nonunion labor from federal construction projects, and EO 13509, which established the Soviet-sounding Council on Automotive Communities and Workers. Even Mr. Obama’s liberal supporters have blanched at his claims of power regarding extraordinary rendition, surveillance, state secrets, signing statements and executive privilege.
Mr. Obama seems to have basic problems with democracy. He doesn’t like it when people disagree with him; he resists compromise, and he seems to think he should be free to reshape the country to suit his vision. Those who challenge him are ignored, mocked or told to shut up.
During his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama said, “Let me be perfectly clear: I have taught the Constitution, I understand the Constitution, and I will obey the Constitution when I am president of the United States.” As president, however, he seems increasingly to view himself as a philosopher king. If Mr. Obama seeks to exploit executive power to ram through policies the American people oppose, they will hold him and his party accountable. There will be a lot for his successor to undo in 2013.