Pence’s Presidential Pensées
An Indiana congressman’s critique of Obamaism.
Dec 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 14 • By TERRY EASTLAND
It may be startling to imagine the American presidency as a train that “has run off the rails.” But that’s the metaphor Indiana Republican Mike Pence chose in a speech he gave at Hillsdale College on September 20 titled “The Presidency and the Constitution.” Elected last month to his sixth term in the House of Representatives, Pence also delivered a version of the speech in mid November to the Federalist Society in Washington. His sober thoughts on the presidency have been gaining notice in conservative circles, and it’s easy to see why.
Pence assigns responsibility to both Democratic and Republican presidents for the wreckage piling up alongside the tracks. But he is most concerned about the contributions to this disaster being made by the current occupant of the Oval Office, Barack Obama. Pence’s sometimes oblique criticism of Obama is unusual in that it has far less to do with the president’s policies—though Pence’s differences here are deep—than with what the congressman sees as a lack of public virtue or character. Pence says flatly that we need a new president.
Pence’s view of the presidency—and his argument against Obama—begins this way: A republic is about the “limitation” of power; the separation of powers provides such limitation; and the presidency has a special responsibility to limit bad and unconstitutional exercises of legislative power. In recent years, however, presidents of both parties, he said at Hills-dale, “have often forgotten that they are intended to restrain the Congress at times” by using the veto power that comes with the office.
Pence thinks President George W. Bush was too forgetful, declining to use the power until his second term. “I view the veto as a very ordinary tool of restraint by the executive,” Pence told me in an interview. He believes that Bush’s neglect of his responsibility to veto helped bring about “the runaway spending and earmarking culture” of the past decade that has continued and even worsened under Obama, gaining expression in larger deficits and the growing national debt.
As for Obama, so far from seeing his office as a possible restraint upon Congress, he has regarded it, said Pence in his speech, as “an instrument with which to transform the nation . . . according to his highest aspirations.” Thus, Obama has not restrained himself much less the Democratic Congress (two vetoes to date), but instead has enlisted it—a willing participant—in his transformational labor. This is how you get a Congress unbound, Pence said, passing bills such as the health care legislation “of such insulting complexity that they are heavier than chains.”
Pence sees Obama as antirepublican, a man who regards himself as “above us” instead of as “merely one of us.” This “above us” mentality has led to a lack of respect for the people and an unwillingness to defer to their judgment. “My sense,” Pence told me, “is that from the very outset this administration . . . acted as though the president was elected to move his agenda irrespective of the broad desires or sentiments of the American people.” It was undeterred when items on the Obama agenda, most notably health care reform, saw “rising public opposition throughout their consideration” in Congress.
Pence finds Obama a man of “unprecedented presumption,” meaning that he has so little regard for the people and their forms of government that he presumes to use the powers of government to rule. Use of that word might seem over the top but for the fact, noted in Pence’s speech, that two years ago the leader of Obama’s transition team actually said, “It’s important that President-elect Obama is prepared to really take power and begin to rule day one.”
Pence’s criticism of Obama’s character extends to the president’s representation of the country abroad. As long as he is “at home,” a president should be “cautious, dutiful, and deferential,” Pence said at Hillsdale, but “abroad his character must change.” The president “bows to no man,” nor does he “criticize [his] own country,” nor does he “argue the case against the United States but [makes] the case for it,” nor does he “apologize to [our] enemies.” Obama was not mentioned by name in these passages, but it’s clear that in describing how a president should conduct himself abroad, Pence had in mind what he regards as the negative example of Obama.
Pence gave his speech before the midterm elections, and it can be read as his sense of how they would turn out and why. Arguing that the presidency “is neither fit nor intended to be” an instrument of transformation as envisioned by its occupant, Pence said that when a president attempts such a transformation, “the country sustains a wound, and cries out justly and indignantly” and says that “we as a people are not to be ruled and not to be commanded.” And so the midterm electorate voted as it did on November 2.