President Obama, frustrated that America’s system of government disagrees with his thinking on guns, has decided to make up his own rules, using executive action to do what he personally believes is right. His use of presidential decrees to govern has become a pattern, a crutch even, because it dispenses with the messy business of having to deal with what others think. His supporters may applaud, but the president is setting precedent to undermine individual freedoms, guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, and is tearing at the fabric of American governance.
Executive action is a concerted, coordinated effort by the president’s political appointees to use the powers they possess, to accomplish whatever he wants. Without Congressional approval, executive action looks uncomfortably like authoritarianism, a disease endemic among big government politicians convinced they know what’s best for “their people.”
Juan Linz, a distinguished political science professor, late of Yale University, known for his study of dictators, suggested four traits that characterize authoritarianism; constraints on political institutions, legitimacy based on emotion (often the need to address “easily recognizable societal problems,” repressive tactics against opponents, and “formally ill-defined” executive power. If one thinks of the president’s efforts to “go around” Congress, his exploitation of gun tragedies to justify controversial policies, the work of his Justice Department and the IRS against conservatives, and his non-referenced, non-specific assertions of “legal authority” for what he is doing, it becomes well, uncomfortable.
Great presidents understand that the American Union is built on consensus, not a winner-take-all approach, in which those with authority to act ignore the concerns of those without such authority. As with so many things, Abraham Lincoln gives us the best example of what it means to be president of all the people. On March 4, 1865, the Civil War was all but over. Sheridan had burned the Shenandoah Valley, Sherman had marched to the sea, and at Petersburg, Lee’s starving army of 56,000 men held on, barely, against Grant with twice that number.
If ever there was a time to spike the football, that was it. Lincoln was dealing with people who had taken up arms against his administration, to establish a different government, an evil one that would enslave one-eighth of its population. The time to address that “easily recognized societal problem,” to bring justice, was clearly at hand. Yet Lincoln, at the height of his power, dealt with respect, not disdain, for his enemies. What he did that day, in his Second Inaugural Address, helped to unite the Union, not divide it. Let us, he said, “care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves ” Not peace for his political supporters, peace for all of us.
President Obama’s exercise of power is moving down a different path, a path of rule by decree, Presidential edicts demanding obedience, enforced by praetorian prefects, edicts that divide the people, not unite them. It is a path built on arrogance, and sustained by contempt for the diversity of opinion that keeps “these United States” free.
Diversity of thought, and a history of presidents, respectful of that diversity, and capable of finding a way to work with even the most recalcitrant opposition, is the bulwark of our Union. They preserve it by using compromise to soften the sharp edges of competing concerns, and to create a national consensus that enables us to solve national problems. For someone who has learned in foreign wars that arrogant power can create more enemies than it destroys, inflame an insurgency, rather than pacify it, the actions of this president at home, crying at press conferences, saying “it makes me mad,” seeking to “politicize” what is an “easily recognized societal problem,” all but stamping his feet in a temper tantrum, to put it mildly, is not in the best interest of the Union.
Diktat, as an instrument of governance, is certain to create societal fissures that fester for years. The abortion controversy, in some respects, is more about how Roe v. Wade was decided, than what was decided. The Supreme Court used facts in its decision that were never presented to the court, and in doing so, denied the losing side the right to be heard on those facts. Almost a half-century later, we are still fighting about the issue.
Obamacare is another example of diktat dividing our society. Approved only by Democrats, avoiding Senate protections designed to give the minority a voice, Obamacare, five years into is life, has generated anger and divisiveness, equal to the abortion issue. Throwing down the gauntlet, in search of triumphalism over consensus simply doesn’t work.
So the president declares, “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone.” And “we are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we’re providing Americans the kind of help that they need.” He and his acolytes have set out to give Americans the “kind of help that they need,” regardless of what their elected representatives may think, and in the process will seek to divide, not unite the people. Somewhere Juan Linz is thinking to himself, this is no Lincoln.
• Bruce Lawlor, a retired U.S. Army major general, was a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council and the former chief of staff of the Department of Homeland Security.