Commentary Magazine


Checks and Balances on the President

In his speech to a joint session of Congress last week, the president said this: “The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy; whether we can restore some of the fairness and security that has defined this nation since our beginning.”

This is a repeated theme the president is using and will continue to use. It’s his effort to position himself as a modern-day Harry Truman, running against a do-nothing Congress.

About this strategy I have a couple of thoughts, beginning with this one: If a political circus describes what is happening in Washington  D.C., these days, who might you guess is the ringleader? Give yourself a gold star if you guessed Barack Obama.

Let’s see if we can follow the Obama Logic: (a) Politics is a wreck. (b) I have been presiding over politics since I took the presidential oath in January 2009. (c) Re-elect me so we can fix our dysfunctional politics. That and a 9 percent unemployment rate won’t be a terribly persuasive message to voters. Indeed, it’s somewhat amusing to watch Obama attempt to run against himself, acting as if some other mysterious, yet-to-be-named person has been president for the last two-and-three-quarter years.

But there is another, more substantial, point that needs to be made, and it’s this: what Obama calls a “political circus” is actually different political philosophies clashing in America’s system of government, with all its checks and balances.

Remember that the president, in the aftermath of his election, was, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “the least obstructed president since LBJ in 1965 or FDR in 1933.” He got almost everything he wanted during the first half of his first term (the Journal’s list includes $830 billion in stimulus, $3 billion for cash for clunkers, $30 billion in small business loans, $30 billion for mortgage modification, the GM-Chrysler bailouts, ObamaCare, Dodd-Frank, credit card price controls, Build America Bonds, jobless benefits for a record 99 weeks, and more.)

The results have been abysmal (see here). In reaction, the public offered a brutal political rebuke to Obama’s party, handing control of the House, by a wide margin, to Republicans. The meaning was clear: they were to act as a check on Obamaism, which is precisely what they’re doing.

The president, not surprisingly, doesn’t like that. He continually reminds us he is “frustrated.” And that’s a darn shame. But greater presidents than Obama have been frustrated by James Madison’s handiwork. Indeed, he and the other founders designed our form of government in part to counterbalance ineffective and unwise chief executives. “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” Madison wrote in Federalist #10.

You might say Madison had Obama in mind.