Opinion

The self-fulfilling prophecy of an all-powerful president

Photo of Jim Huffman
Jim Huffman
Visiting Fellow, Hoover Institution

During last week’s Republican presidential debate in Arizona, Mitt Romney said: “I will repeal Obamacare.” In a February 4 tweet, Newt Gingrich said: “On day one I will repeal Obamacare.” In a campaign ad released on December 9, Rick Perry said: “I’m an outsider who will repeal Obamacare.” Last June 14 on “Good Morning America,” Michele Bachmann said: “I will repeal Obamacare.” The Obama/Biden 2012 campaign website states: “President Obama passed the Affordable Care Act.”

So there you have it. Our sitting president and four Republicans who aspire to the office assert that they can single-handedly enact or repeal the laws of our nation. In the president’s case, he may actually believe it. It was only a few days ago that he said, “When Congress refuses to act, Joe and I will act.” But he and two of the four Republicans have served, or now serve, in the United States Congress. You would think they might show a little more respect for the constitutional role of the people’s elected representatives.

To his credit, former senator Rick Santorum has been a little more circumspect. He wrote in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that “I’ll submit legislation to repeal Obamacare.” But then he also wrote that “all Obama administration regulations that have an economic burden over $100 million will be repealed,” and “I’ll cut means-tested entitlement programs by 10% across the board, freeze them for four years, and block grant them to states.”

OK. I know. These folks must know that the president cannot enact or repeal laws, though, as Obama has demonstrated, they can do a lot of law-making through executive orders and administrative rule-making. So, if President Obama knows that he did not pass the Affordable Care Act, and the four Republicans know that, if elected president, they could not repeal it, why do they claim to the voters that they can and will?

I suspect the political consultants counsel candidates to portray a take-charge, get-things-done image and, given the sorry state of civic knowledge among the American electorate, a whole lot of voters won’t know the candidates are promising to do what they cannot. Saying “I will repeal Obamacare” makes for a better sound bite than saying “I will do everything I can to persuade both houses of Congress to repeal Obamacare, and if I am successful, I will sign the bill.”

But if everyone running for president says it, and they say it over and over again, it starts to have a life of its own. People, including the candidates themselves and the president when elected, start thinking the president is all powerful — that the president can take over private companies, reallocate private interests in those companies, appoint powerful executive officials (czars) without Senate confirmation, invade foreign nations, make recess appointments when the Senate is not in recess, impose carbon-emission regulations by executive fiat — in sum, act when Congress has declined to act.