Why Obama Brought Less Change Than Hoped
Why I wasn't fooled by Barack Obama's campaign promises to curb presidential power.
Back before the election James, you said (repeatedly) that Obama would fight to keep the excesses of the Bush administration and probably try to expand them. I disagreed, To say that I was naive is putting it lightly. Every time Obama has had a chance to surrender some of these “powers” he has fought to strengthen the hold the POTUS has on them.
Of course, I was far from alone in getting this one right. I find that, in politics, you seldom go wrong betting cynical.
More importantly, one of the great lessons that I took from my earliest American government courses as an undergrad was that politicians tend to play roles imposed on them by the offices they inhabit.
The Barack Obama of 2008 was a United States Senator and former state senator, community organizer, and conlaw prof. While I’m sure that, like most successful politicians, he was telling voters what they wanted to hear during the campaign, my guess is that he genuinely believed that presidential power should be curbed. After all, he’d always viewed it with either academic dispatch or from the standpoint of someone in a competing part of our governmental system.
But, come noon on 20 January 2009, Obama became President of the United States.
Suddenly, he had all of the pressures, perks, and incentives that George W. Bush had. He’ started getting barraged with intelligence telling him about all these awful threats to America and with an incessant cacophony of voices demanding that he do something about X, Y, and Z.
Suddenly, it made all the sense in the world that he ought to have the power necessary to do the job as he saw fit — without interference from the idiots on Capitol Hill and a bunch of unelected judges!
This is why we’re a government of laws, not men. Institutions matter. The Constitution matters. Not because the people we elect to office are evil — most of them aren’t — but because the natural human tendency of people in power is to push the limits of their authority to the maximum to do good.
At the extreme example, you get Richard Nixon and Enemies Lists. But it doesn’t have to go to criminal lengths to be dangerous. Especially, it seems, in times of crisis. Franklin Roosevelt is widely considered as one of our very best presidents and he managed to lock up over 100,000 Japanese Americans and bully the Supreme Court to go along.
While I disagreed with many of Bush’s post-9/11 policies, thinking they were unwise or even outrageous, it never occurred to me that they were anything but well-intentioned. And, while I disagree with Obama’s policy preferences generally and his attempt to stretch the national security letter program in particular, I’m sure he’s doing it for the best of reasons.
And, again, that’s why we have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, too many Americans seem not to care so long as their guy’s in charge.