A Liberal Explains Why Obama Is an Imperial President

Seat of power. (AP)
November 20, 2014

President Obama is under fire from conservatives over his proposed executive action on immigration reform, which is scheduled to be unveiled Thursday evening. By acting unilaterally on such a controversial issue, they argue, Obama would be continuing a disturbing trend with respect to the abuse of executive power.

It wasn’t long ago that liberals were the ones complaining about executive overreach. Yet, after denouncing President George W. Bush for abusing our democracy for the better part of a decade, liberals have spent the Obama administration defending the president from similar charges.

Looking back on some of the left-wing criticisms of the Bush administration, it is fairly easy to use the exact same arguments to make the case that the Obama administration has been "the least democratic in the history of the modern presidency."

That last line, for example, was taken from a 2004 cover story for the New Republic by Jonathan Chait (who, in fairness, has been somewhat critical of Obama’s executive action proposal). Chait’s points about the Bush administration’s abuse of power can be easily applied to the current administration. The following has been appropriated, more or less verbatim, from Chait’s piece, titled "Power from the People."

Later this evening, President Obama will announce his plan to effectively legalize millions of unauthorized immigrants without Congressional approval.

Here we have a sample of the style of governance that has prevailed under Obama's presidency. It's not the sort of thing you would find in a civics textbook. Obama and his allies have been described as partisan or bare-knuckled, but the problem is more fundamental than that. They have routinely violated norms of political conduct, smothered information necessary for informed public debate, and illegitimately exploited government power to perpetuate their rule. These habits are not just mean and nasty. They're undemocratic.

What does it mean to call the president "undemocratic"? It does not mean Obama is an aspiring emperor. But democracy can be a matter of degree. Russia and the United States are both democracies, but the United States is more democratic than Russia. The proper indictment of the Obama administration is, therefore, not that he's abandoning American democracy, but that he's weakening it. This administration is, in fact, the least democratic in the modern history of the presidency.

Since Franklin Roosevelt made press conferences a regular feature, Obama has held fewer of them than any president. When he does appear before the press, Obama routinely refuses to answer difficult questions.

The administration has not confined its mania for secrecy to obscure policy wonkery; it has been essential to selling most of its signature policies. The Affordable Care Act would not have passed Congress had the administration shared its true cost and design. And both Congress and the public might have been more skeptical of the administration's repeated claims that, as President Obama himself put it, "If you like you health-care plan, you can keep it."

The Obama administration confronted this problem by mounting an elaborate disinformation campaign. Obama's approach is thrown into stark relief by a White House memo from the Clinton years. "We have a line … that says ‘You'll pick the health plan and the doctor of your choice,’" the memo read. "I know that it's just what people want to hear. But can we get away with it? I am very worried about getting skewered for over-promising here on something we know full well we won't deliver."

Falsehoods were embedded in nearly every aspect of Obama's sales pitch. To ensure that Americans would not learn the truth about the new law, the Obama administration employed unconventional means, such as hiring a public relations firm to help sell it to distrustful voters. The contract totaled $20 million in multimedia advertising—which, astoundingly enough, was financed not by Obama's campaign, but by taxpayer dollars.

It is not terribly controversial to suggest that democracies function best with an informed public, and the administration's inaccessibility and penchant for secrecy obviously hinder that. But Obama has done more than keep the public in the dark: He has actively sought to mislead it. Don't all politicians fudge the truth from time to time? Sure. The difference is that, over the last few years, misinformation has become fundamental, rather than incidental, to the political process.

The Affordable Care Act was a model of enlightened deliberation compared with the process that resulted in the Senate immigration reform bill. Again, setting aside the substantive merits of comprehensive immigration reform, two pieces of public opinion data in 2014 stand out. First, only 22 percent of Americans, and just 27 percent of Democrats, favor an increase in legal immigration from current levels—one of the most overlooked aspects of the Senate bill. A clear majority of Americans prefer either a decrease immigration levels (41 percent), or keeping current immigration levels the same (33 percent). Second, polls showed that the public preferred legal status for illegal immigrants to be granted only after new border security measures have been completed, which would occur under either the Senate bill or Obama’s executive action.

But, if democracy requires a distinction between the interests of the government and the interests of the party that happens to run it, Obama and his allies have little regard for such discrimination. Obama's use of the Department of Health and Human Services to fund propaganda on behalf of its healthcare bill was not an isolated instance.

The Obama administration has been just as brazen about misusing its powers over state secrecy. While the White House has restricted access to vast swaths of material, such as information regarding the "Fast and Furious" gunrunning operation, it has been extravagantly liberal in releasing information that suits Obama's partisan interests.

But the most effective use of self-perpetuating power has been the particularly undemocratic way Obama's party has run Congress, especially the United States Senate. It's hardly new, of course, for the Senate majority party to run roughshod over the minority. But, with Obama issuing orders to Harry Reid, the trampling of minority rights in the last few years has been carried to a new extreme.

The Democratic majority, for example, routinely denies Republicans the right to propose or amend legislation. As a result, popular reforms—such as legislation to construct the Keystone XL pipeline—has failed to pass the upper chamber, even though a majority of Senators support it.