In time, the Obama presidency could well be remembered as the “First Person Presidency.” From the outset, including on foreign policy issues, Obama told us his very existence would solve even the most difficult problems. As president, Obama often has relied on executive orders in lieu of collaborative legislative action. When it comes to modern day international relations, however, unilateral action from a head of state without the consent of the legislature or the public is not likely to work. Syria is proving to be a case study of just that.
It is a tradition among American presidents, at the outset of their terms, to seek unity and work with both sides. Thomas Jefferson, in his bid for unity after a contentious campaign amongst a divided electorate, famously said to the nation: “We are all Republicans – We are all Federalists.” President Obama also took office with voters strongly at odds and claimed to want unity.
Since his election, however, he has progressed from partisan politics to almost eschewing politics altogether by acting unilaterally. Obama’s early first term agenda featured two giant legislative victories that were procured by purely partisan votes: the so-called stimulus bill and Obamacare.
Even while he garnered those victories, Obama had distant relationship with Congress – even his Democrat allies. Indeed, no one can claim Obama worked hand and glove to get his victories and many on the Hill have said he never calls on them. He is a loner in politics by some accounts.
The 2010 elections ended Obama’s ability to get one-sided legislation passed, with the loss of the Democratic majority in the House. Facing a divided government, Obama’s working relationship has become even more strained if not nearly non-existent. Not to be deterred, even if that raised constitutional concerns, Obama is governing by executive order and regulation. Well beyond his recess appointments, which were declared unconstitutional, Obama uses executive orders to issue regulations from the EPA, and to push through major policy changes related to immigration, the environment, voting, and more. Those policies ordinarily, and more properly, should be the subject of collaborative legislation.
It is true that other presidents used executive orders; the explosion of them arguably began with Teddy Roosevelt. What is different this time is that this president, and his congressional allies, have no second term legislative agenda – especially after the spectacular failure of their gun-control efforts.
Presidential historians will say that Obama was totally unlike FDR or Lyndon Johnson. Both were powerful, and marshaled the legislative process to get their way on The New Deal, the Great Society and Civil Rights. (The latter required working with Republicans over Democratic objections.)
Obama has yet to successfully work across the aisle. Indeed, he has never tried to do that. While our Divided Era clearly makes that more difficult, Obama has never attempted to rise above it. Instead, he works and talks as if he resents constitutional constraints – constraints that were designed to force collaboration between politicians before action could be taken.
All of that brings us to Syria. When the President declared his famous “red line,” he spoke in the first person. He said the use of chemical weapons would change: “my calculus.” His emphasis was in keeping with his ‘first person,’ unilateral action presidency.
In the post-Cold War era of non-state actors and unclear alliances, unilateral pronouncements of such magnitude cannot possibly succeed. If a two-party system presents a problem at home, a hopelessly divided UN Security council and a community of nearly 200 self-interested nations is surely more daunting. In a part of the world where American influence is waning, and from an administration that forfeited trust in Benghazi and undercut Libyan and Egyptian presidents, Obama should have spoken about the global community from day one – not his personal calculus.
Keep in mind that the Syrian war is over two years old. There was time to get this policy right. Prior to saying anything, he should have sought out common ground with congressional leaders privately. Similarly, private discussions should have been held with our major allies. There was no rush for Obama to say what he said at the time.
Now, however, just ahead of an embarrassing defeat in Congress, the first person president may well have been out-maneuvered by Russia and Syria. Of course, the only time Obama doesn’t talk in the first person is when he fails, there is a scandal, or true leadership is needed. On Syria, Obama has already laid the groundwork to blame others. In truth, however, he has been going it alone.