WASHINGTON – President Obama signaled in his annual message that he intends to turn a totally new page in American politics, and apparently most people are happy to ride along.
For the first time, a president openly threatened Congress in a State of the Union message. After sketching legislation he wants to advance his vision of green energy, he said: “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future.” The records are full of presidents furtively toying with legislation after passage. Notoriously, George W. Bush added so-called signing statements to bills he approved, indicating the parts he would or would not enforce.
But Obama’s move is very different. “As far as I know, the president has not explicitly threatened to use his executive order to circumvent Congress in a State of the Union message,” said Wendy Schiller, political scientist at Brown University.
A brief civics class: The Constitution made Congress a co-equal, if not superior, power to the president. The president would carry out what Congress ordained. This was the Founders’ vision of representative democracy, rooted in a lower House elected every two years. This was once thought to be liberal.
More than a million men and women died or were wounded under this patriotic banner of law over whim. Law is an abstract that protects you from a crook, from a prowler, from the government. It requires that Congress and the president show mutual respect, even if they dislike each other.
Notably, federal courts have cast a cold eye on Obama’s sidesteps of Congress, of the law. His regulations bruise the First Amendment’s bar to the government’s establishing a state religion.
Obama seeks to define which church-related institutions must provide employees insurance for contraception and abortifacients. This is tied up in court.
The senior appellate court in Washington last month struck down Obama’s reshaping of the Constitution’s decrees on making senior appointments without approval of the Senate. He made “recess” appointments to the National Labor Relations Board when the Senate was not really in recess, the court held.
Before election, he partially voided enforcement of immigration laws passed by Congress, by providing illegals with a kind of temporary amnesty. As he did by suspending enforcement of the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act.
With his drone kill program, Obama is now judge, jury and executioner of Americans abroad who are “under suspicion” of plotting terrorism against fellow Americans. This path touches on the Fourth Amendment relating to public warrants, the Fifth Amendment requiring due process of law and the 14th Amendment promising equal protection of the law to all citizens.
Obama last Tuesday night offered to share drone strike information with select congressional panels. But this only makes them party to a shameful rupture of American democracy and painfully evolved Western law.
Some of these actions may work as a political goad to return the House to Democratic control in two years, giving the party total congressional rule.
Obama’s unique taunt in his annual message may prompt Republicans to become more obstructionist than they have been, and trigger more lawsuits against Obama actions.
Moreover, this trend poses a question about what being liberal means for Obama’s loyal followers. Is this the liberalism of Presidents Harry Truman and Bill Clinton, who each worked with a GOP House? Or the liberalism of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez?
And is it still out of order to ask Obama-style liberals how they feel about the 22nd Amendment barring a third term?