Humility and executive power

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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In a recent Wall Street Journal commentary, Daniel Henninger urged Republicans and Democrats to be wary of President Obama’s “creeping authoritarianism.” It is a recurrent theme among conservative and libertarian commentators, and surely they have a point. The empirical evidence of executive aggrandizement, not to mention the president’s frequent declarations that he will not let congress or the courts stand in the way of doing what needs to be done, is overwhelming.

During my 2010 run for the U.S. Senate in Oregon, the red flags of expanding executive authority were everywhere, and many among the Republican grassroots and the Tea Party attributed it to a desire on the part of the president to destroy America as we know it. Some predicted a power grab in the tradition of Hugo Chavez, the elected president of Venezuela. Others claimed that Obama is intent on transforming our nation into a social welfare state on the model of Europe. A surprisingly large number seemed to believe the president to be a man of ill will.

Of course there is nothing unusual in American politics about attributing nefarious motives to the opposition. But such accusations are seldom persuasive with a large number of voters, particularly when the accused is a loving father and husband. To most people, it’s just not plausible that Barack Obama’s creeping authoritarianism is evidence of a nefarious plot to transform our democratic republic into a dictatorship.

So if Obama really is a good guy with the best interests of the people who elected him at heart, what explains his dismissive attitude toward the legislative and judicial branches of government?

To some extent, the explanation rests in the adage that power corrupts. But that is true for every president, as well as members of congress and other public officials. Obama clearly enjoys the trappings of high office, but he seems no more corruptible than the average president. Yet no president, at least since FDR, has been so aggressive in pushing the constitutional limits of executive power.

The explanation for Obama’s authoritarian impulses is that he, like so many other younger Democrats, is a modern progressive schooled by a left wing professoriate so confident in its views that it sees little need for competing ones. When you have a monopoly on truth, there is really no point in having a marketplace of ideas.

Obama and his underlings are supremely confident about two things. They are confident that they know what is best for the American people, and they are confident that they know how to get the job done. The president ridicules Republican opposition to his agenda as brazen partisanship because he knows what policies and actions are good for the nation. There is no point in considering alternatives when yours is undeniably the right path. Republicans are engaged in politics, the president is engaged in serving the public good.

When you know the answer, you grow impatient with those who have not yet seen the light, even if they are the voters or the representatives of the voters. Representative democracy is all well and good, and so is constitutional government, but when you know what is best, sometimes you just have to do the right thing. The president has said as much on numerous occasions.

Though writing about Pope Francis in the wake of his visit to Brazil, the always perceptive Peggy Noonan describes what is desperately needed in the Obama White House – humility. No one would describe Barack Obama as a humble man, particularly not after the way he has embraced the tangible benefits of power. But expensive vacations and lavish entertainment of celebrities are only nickels and dimes in a bloated federal budget. Doing what you are supremely confident is right and good without regard for congress and the courts is a corruption of the constitutional separation of powers.

A small dose of humility would tell the President that the constitutional separation of powers is not about a competition for control among the executive, legislative and judicial branches. It is about how to best preserve liberty and respect the will of voters. Presidents and members of congress are representatives of the people, and often, as now, the people are divided. A humble president would understand that when the people’s representatives in congress disagree with what he knows to be best, the people, not the president, have the last word. A more humble president would understand that only the people can say what is best for the people.