The White House recently made an amazing—and disturbingly un-American—pronouncement regarding its desire to move its agenda via executive actions. In describing the administration’s intent to pursue “audacious” executive orders, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough stated the Obama administration’s desire that its actions “not be subjected to undoing through [Congress] or otherwise.”
Of course, Americans are accustomed to presidents using executive authority to forward their preferred public policies, especially when the popular will reflected in Congress stymies their agenda. But think carefully about the end goal animating the Obama administration’s upcoming actions, as articulated by McDonough: policy decisions that cannot be undone by Congress “or otherwise,” which seems broad enough a term to encompass the judiciary or any other source of government authority.
Unchecked Power Degrades Into Tyranny
The Founders had a term for the idea of government actions being “subject to undoing” by other public institutions. As noted and explained in Federalist 51, they were called “checks and balances.” James Madison summarized the wisdom and need for these checks: “A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.”
The experience of the Founders taught them that unchecked political power ultimately and inevitably undermines the freedom of the governed, making proper internal checks and balances on power within government critically important to ordered liberty.
It seems Obama administration does not care to heed the experience our Founders relied upon. From a shallow perspective, such disregard for American wisdom makes sense. No one really likes having his potential accomplishments quashed before they materialize or, worse yet, struck down after the fact by those with a differing view.
But Dealing With Dissenters Is Annoying
This only highlights the deeper wisdom of the American constitutional order. The Founders established a system of ordered liberty that would check these shallow inclinations of human nature by balancing private and institutional political interests against their myriad (and harmful) expressions.
Over the centuries, many elected American leaders have accepted such limitations on their authority as simply part of the wisdom of the American way of governance and the price of American freedom. Such is apparently not so within the Obama administration, whose progressive ideological goals, it seems, have overtaken their devotion to America’s governing philosophy.
Surely, Obama and his administration officials have their justifications for setting themselves in open opposition to the American ideal of government within ordered liberty. Their justifications likely have a certain logic to them when considered narrowly, and are probably grounded in the administration’s political experience.
They have faced—frustratingly, no doubt—a Congress and a judiciary that have proven unwilling to go along with the president’s progressive agenda. What’s more, Congress has proven dysfunctional for the better part of Obama’s time in office, which would seem to justify entertaining a style of unilateral and unchecked executive governance more akin to an authoritarian regime than a free republic.
This Sword Is Double-Edged
But however reasonable the justifications for an ultimately un-American, anti-constitutional style of governance may seem to the Obama administration, it would better serve its own legacy and the welfare of the American people if they would pay humble heed to prudent counsel offered in an 1854 fragment from President Abraham Lincoln to “take care.”
As Lincoln highlighted there, the justifications you use to prove your authority and ability to revoke another’s rights and interests will one day be turned against you to justify revoking your own.
So perhaps Obama and his administration officials should “take care” before abandoning the American governing philosophy in pursuit of a progressive agenda, unchecked and unbalanced by Congress and the courts. That’s because if they succeed, when a conservative executive is in place doing the same thing, any calls from progressives to respect their rights and the constitutional limits upon the executive’s authority will be empty, self-serving hypocrisy—principles they would not abide by when given the chance.
That will be because today, when they could have proven their genuine devotion to American governing philosophy by accepting the Founders’ intended limits on executive authority, they threw them over amid Obama’s “audacity.”