Will historians mark Barack H. Obama as the first post Constitutional president of the United States? We must await those historians’ judgements, but there are plenty of clues.
President Obama, in place of largely disappearing into the White House like most of his predecessors, has been aided by doting media in extending his high visibility campaigning as a governance tool for managing Congress and the people. His NSA and FBI snoop our internet and cell phones. The Obama Justice Department has entered local community relations and assumed oversight of local policing. Thanks to satellite networks, military commanders in the field seemingly require White House permission for bathroom breaks. Drone assassinations and U.S. military missions conducted inside other countries at presidential order have become business as usual and President Obama’s use of executive orders has been compared to ruling by decree, with minimal resistance from courts or Congress. His agencies massively regulate the details of business and of private life while his agents appear regularly in court to force new moral and social behaviors onto reluctant organizations or citizens. Though the Constitution still limits presidential power, societal changes, technical innovation and of course, human ambition may be making a hands-on ruler of an officer originally intended to preside. None may honestly deny the growth of economic and behavioral control exerted by the U.S. government, presciently predicted in 1835 by Alexis de Tocqueville. When we expand the power of the government bus, how do we restrain the bus driver? Perhaps that underlies the historical succession of successful democracies into empires?
The seed of executive aggrandizement has always been present; the Founders worried about it. They wanted no kings in the United States; their careful enumeration/separation of powers in the Constitution was aimed at holding off such a development. However, Founder John Adams wrote that the new Constitution was suitable only for a moral and religious people and Benjamin Franklin wondered in public whether Americans could keep it. It has been clear since the Supreme Court appointed itself arbiter of the Constitution in 1803 that Constitutional limits would only delay, not withstand sustained popular will or sustained, determined government.
The current attacks on the Electoral College, a key determinant for equitable government, would probably surprise few of the Founding Fathers. While they could not predict the female contraceptive pill or the internet impacts on society and government, they knew human nature better than we appear to understand it. “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty” is their warning; that it has fallen on deaf ears would probably not surprise them.
President Obama, in addition to installing a permanent campaign as a governing mode, has deviated from most of his recent predecessors’ poses as the presidents of all the Americans; his presidency has been more parochial than that. His Internal Revenue Service discriminates against Tea Party groups and his law enforcement agencies see threats on the political right more easily than on the left, ably reinforced by the major media. The CIA is accused of presidential election interference via its heavily debated reports of Russian hacking, a follow-on to a suspiciously timed FBI announcement re Clinton e-mails with likely election effects. Though serving different aims, both of these suggest government election meddling.
Recently, the Obama Administration joined with major internet providers in an effort to defund “fake news,” a program that while too new to condemn outright, smells like political censorship. “Fake news” is being attributed to the “alt-right,” a new political term intended to suggest extremism that may in fact be applied to any right wing source of which the political Left has not approved. Most of the major media are in sync. For those who enjoy irony, we may be seeing the greatest proliferation of information ever contemplated, subjected to the most detailed political censorship ever conceived, courtesy of the same new technology.
President-elect Trump seems to be building upon President Obama’s amplified presidential model, even enlarging perennial public presence. The media have replaced much news with endless discussion, pro and con, of Trumpian doings and sayings plus reruns of his public performances. The erstwhile “news” media outlets are becoming Trump Temples, albeit staffed with more detractors than adherents at the moment. While this Trump opera inundates the public stage, the President-elect generates a storm of tweets and posts in addition to it. He is, should he continue this fandango after next January 20th, about to be the perennially public President, a permanent pitchman on full time display in every home and venue. Theodore Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit” was a very modest ancestor; P.T. Barnum would bow in envy of superior promotion and showmanship. Demagogues are hardly novel but the scale and persistence of this one might redefine the term and reallocate government power in the United States.
Another possible indicator: The President de facto is wielding power comparable to that of the President de jure. Our President-elect is, while awaiting inauguration, strong-arming manufacturers into producing domestically instead of abroad, luring Chinese manufacturers to build U.S. factories, influencing Obama Administration regulators to hold off regulations and even negotiating with foreign leaders. By appearances at least, Donald Trump is doing as much U.S. governing as Barack Obama. Such is the power of Promoted, Perennial Public Presence. Congress, unaccustomed to its present eclipse, has had trouble holding its own with President Obama. How will it deal with Trump?
For those who like jokers in their games, we can add Trump’s comparative isolation from not only the opposing Democrats but from the GOP establishment too. Will he cozy up to one of the parties or play them off against each other? Will the parties come together to quash too strong a President? Stay tuned; this show seems destined to play for a while. And it may reshape U.S. government. Or not, of course. Place your bets …
Perhaps all this just says that the U.S. Constitution is obsolete? It tried and failed to use the states to limit Federal power. It tried and failed to limit Federal spending by restricting Federal access to funding. It was conceived to protect the people when their delegated power was exercised far from their ken; news filtered out slowly. But today, this morning’s Washington doings are tonight’s news. Well, until Trump replaced the reporters…. Now, Trump may tweet the news as it happens. Or not …
The Constitution is obsolete, even as amended; Americans aren’t the same sort of people for whom it was written nor do today’s conditions match those of yesteryear. But the principles embodied in it are tied to unchanged human nature, as valid today as ever. Opening the document to formal revision risks alterations subject to destructive agendas put forward for self-interests, a grave risk indeed given an uninformed and uninterested public. The American experiment is ongoing and moving into less charted seas as well, but still the United States remains the destination of choice for the world’s refugees and aspirants to success. That is a lot to risk for the sake of updating a document.
On the other hand, looking at those we have chosen to lead us, the matter may be moot. If President Obama is thought to take lightly the Constitutional limits of his power, how should we look at President-elect Trump, who has begun the exercise of presidential powers without bothering with the Constitutional detail of a swearing-in?
Perhaps the U.S. Constitution is less protection today than the popular image of it in the public mind; perhaps it is mostly the fact of recurring elections that protects us. That is not a novel view. If it is a correct view, the new presidential paradigm initiated by Barack Obama and under expansion by Donald Trump is not reassuring. U.S. elections are becoming suspect and the new model presidency channels the ancient process by which the Roman Senate gave way to Caesar….