The Growing Cult of the Imperial Presidency

Yesterday, President Obama used executive orders to further burden the fundamental right of self-defense. On the same day, in an effort to defend his Senate absenteeism, GOP candidate Marco Rubio gave his implicit endorsement to the concept of the imperial presidency.

Let us consider Obama’s action on gun control first. His executive orders grow the size of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), commit taxpayers to additional spending on programs he likes, and purport to expand the scope of existing background check requirements.

This did not constitute circumventing Congress, according to Senior White House advisor Valerie Jarett, because Congress “made it very clear they are not going to act.”

It is unclear what practical effect will be achieved by the expanded background checks. The existence of a loophole seems to have been exaggerated in the first place. Any change likely would not have made a difference in the high profile shootings supposedly motivating the President. As Jacob Sullum at Reason’s Hit & Run noted:

[The President] recited a litany of horrific, headline-grabbing mass shootings while proposing policies that would have done nothing to prevent them. Anticipating that his non sequitur would draw criticism, he boldly proclaimed that good intentions matter more than actual results…

The Obama faction of the cult-of-the-president does not care. They conceive of rights as things we get from parent-like leaders. Like well-behaved children, we ought to be grateful for the privileges we are permitted—not whining over the prerogatives of adults.

But if they are upheld (by the very courts GOP candidates like Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush and Mike Huckabee insist should defer to the political branches) Obama’s orders will have at least one meaningful impact, even if it is not on the homicide rate. The impact will be on the structure and scope of government power—and its increasing centralization in a single individual: an imperial president with the power and mandate to act where the people’s elected representatives have refrained from doing so.

As Bonnie Kristian, a communications consultant for Young Americans for Liberty, writes at Rare:

In most matters, contrary George W. Bush’s infamous assertion, the president is constitutionally not “the decider.”

He’s the doer.

Congress is supposed to be the decider—even (or sometimes especially) when it doesn’t do what the president wants.

Even this misses the target.

We are the deciders.

Rights are not things we are given, not privileges handed out to children by benevolent parent-kings. Rights are ours for the having unless and until we yield them. The only way to do that is via elected representatives. Even then our ability to give away rights is limited by the Constitutional framework our founders had the foresight to put in place.

It is not meant to be easy to give rights away.

Jarett and Obama are therefore wrong to lay blame on Congress’s “failure to act.” It is not that Congress has failed to act. It is that we, the people, have not in sufficient numbers directed our elected representatives to infringe further upon our fundamental rights of self-defense.

Use of executive orders to circumvent the collective will of the people’s representatives fundamentally alters our constitutional structure. The left might embrace this trend now, while their man is at the helm, and his target is guns. But how will they feel when it is a Ted Cruz or a Donald Trump circumventing Congress? When the executive power is used again to send troops to fight undeclared wars?

Incidentally, last year, Obama was the biggest seller of arms in the world, servicing buyers like Saudi Arabia and Syrian rebels (even though Congress has not declared war).

I wonder if he does background checks…

It is disappointing that on the same day Obama issued his executive orders, Marco Rubio gave his implicit endorsement to the idea that Congress is of secondary import to the will of the President.

His comments came in the context of his chronic Senate absenteeism, including for the end-of-year spending and tax bill vote, which has provoked criticism from other GOP candidates, including Rand Paul.

Well, you know, the difference between Marco Rubio and I is, I show up for work. And we had the biggest vote of the whole year, voting on a trillion dollars worth of spending, and he didn’t show up. So, yes, I think he ought to resign or give his pay back to the taxpayer.

When asked yet another question on the issue, Rubio’s attempt to defend himself was a big, depressing fail implicitly endorsing the growing cult of the imperial presidency.

I have missed votes this year. You know why? Because … only a president can set the agenda. We’re not going to fix America with senators and congressmen.

Perhaps Rubio could point us to where in the Constitution the power to “set the agenda” is granted exclusively to the President.

I checked Article II and didn’t see it.

You know how everyone has that thing? The thing drives them crazy? Like the sound of nails on a chalkboard? Maybe it is baristas misspelling names. Or your when it should be you’re. People who use literally to mean figuratively.

That song from Frozen.

For me, it is people talking about “our leaders.”

U.S. citizens don’t have leaders. We have representatives. They don’t tell us what to do—we tell them how to voteSee Article I, The Constitution.

We also have a chief executive. His job is to execute the laws passed by Congress, deal with foreign countries, and provide information to Congress. He also serves as Commander-in-Chief of the military.

But not of us.

To the contrary, we pay him for his “Services.” See Article II, The Constitution.

No one commands us. No one leads us. And no one rules us. That is what it means to be free.

The number of people who react with hostility and defensiveness to this notion is bizarre to me. It is as if they want to be led, like when I first left home and missed having my parents tell me what I should do. Being leaderless means being responsible.

So maybe deep down, those who would rather not shoulder such burdens harbor an unconscious longing for the days of monarchs. When the best-born among us led the way atop magnificent horses, swords and armor flashing in the sunlight, obliterating responsibility by demanding complete allegiance—leaving we lesser souls to imagine ourselves as scullery-maid-turned-princess from the safe distance of our own servitude.

Easier to daydream of being transported to the prince’s ball in an enchanted pumpkin wearing a gown made of magic than to actually climb up on a horse of one’s own.

But the willing subjects are as dangerous as the would-be kings.

Sarah Baker is a libertarian, attorney and writer. She lives in Montana with her daughter and a house full of pets.
  • RavenNation

    “U.S. citizens don’t have leaders. We have representatives”

    *Stands to applaud*

  • RavenNation

    “Rights are ours for the having unless and until we yield them.”

    Depending on how you intended this to read, I may be in disagreement. If you mean we give them up through inaction or by not exercising them when those in power seek to take them away, then fair enough.

    However, if you mean they can, in a real way, be surrendered by choice, I would disagree. One of the fundamental arguments undergirding the Lockean idea of rights is that they are intrinsically part of all people (OK, to Locke: white, male, property owners). Rights cannot be surrendered, they cannot be even be taken. At worst, power can be used to prevent someone from exercising those rights but, even then, they do not cease to be.

    P.S. Nice to see some life at TLP.

  • Sarah Baker

    I probably should have appended “under our system of government” or “under our Constitutional framework” to that statement. In other words, under our system, the government did not start out with all the power and then it doles out permissions to us. We started out with all the rights and we granted some powers to the government. But really that’s just glossing over the problem of state power and also avoiding the fundamental issue of what rights are and where they come from. Because that’s complicated!!!