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Getting It Backwards

Obama misunderstands his constitutional role.

Feb 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 21 • By JOHN YOO
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Democratic postmortems on Barack Obama’s disappointing first year in the Oval Office have emphasized, as the president himself did, difficulties inherited from “the last eight years.” Republicans, for their part, credit public opposition to Obama’s overreaching policies. But a full explanation goes much deeper. Obama is failing because he has turned the constitutional functions of the presidency upside down.

Getting It Backwards

The 2010 State of the Union address nicely summed up Obama’s topsy-turvy approach to the presidency. He pressed for a new jobs bill, more domestic spending, and health care nationalization. He attributed his political setbacks not to broad opposition to his domestic ambitions but to “a deficit of trust—deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years.”

National security amounted to an afterthought. He devoted one paragraph each—out of the approximately 110 paragraphs in the speech—to Iraq, Afghanistan, and terrorism. It is as if Lincoln had spent most of his Inaugural Addresses on the transcontinental railroad and the Homestead Act. 

Obama believes the president should lead a revolution in society, the economy, and the political system, but defer on national security and foreign policy to the other branches of government. This upends the Framers’ vision of the presidency. They thought the chief executive’s powers would expand broadly to meet external challenges while playing a modest role at home.

The latest Democratic president is repeating the mistake of the first. When Thomas Jefferson entered office 210 years ago, Chief Justice John Marshall warned that Jefferson would “embody himself in the House of Representatives.” This would “increase his personal power,” Marshall predicted, but it would lead to the “weakening of the office of the President.” The chief justice meant that his political rival (and distant cousin) would gain power by joining forces with his party’s legislative majorities. But the combination would realize the Framers’ fear that Congress would come to dominate the executive branch.

Marshall’s observation explains much about Obama’s first year. By associating himself so closely with congressional Democrats, Obama became responsible for their every misstep. Their reckless overspending and earmarks became his. Their corrupt deal to buy Senator Ben Nelson’s support for nationalized health care became his sordid bargain. Their command-and-control approach to global warming, which will set nationwide limits on energy use and industrial production, became his socialist program.

Putting the president’s fortune in Congress’s hands not only makes for poor politics, it runs counter to the Framers’ plans for the office. They saw Congress, not the presidency, as the main threat to the people’s liberties. In a democracy, James Madison wrote in The Federalist, “the legislative authority, necessarily, predominates” because it has access to the “pockets of the people.” He warned that “it is against the enterprising ambition” of Congress “that the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.” 

The Framers expected the presidency to counterbalance the “impetuous vortex” of Congress. A vigorous executive, Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist, would protect against those “irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice” and provide security against “enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy” which would emanate from the “humours of the legislature.” The great threat to the Constitution, Hamilton wrote, was the “propensity of the legislative department to intrude upon the rights and absorb the powers of other departments” such as the executive branch, the courts, and the states. The president’s veto would not only protect the executive’s constitutional rights from Congress, he wrote, it would also furnish “an additional security against the enaction of improper laws” and allow the president “to guard the community against the effects of faction, precipitancy, or of any impulse unfriendly to the public good.” 

The initiative to regulate the domestic economy and society—limited as it originally was to have been—rested with Congress. The president was to restrain the legislature when it favored party or special interests over the public good. This was no easy job. To give it institutional backbone, the Framers clothed the presidency with independent election, consistent pay, and control over the execution of the laws. Still, Hamilton could only hope that when the legislature gave in to demagogues or temporary passions, the president would “be in a situation to dare to act his own opinion with vigor and decision.” Obama has inverted the presidency in domestic affairs by transforming it from a check into a facilitator of Congress.

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