THE ISSUE: The failure earlier this month of the congressional supercommittee to reach a deal on deficit reduction has President Barack Obama once again threatening action on the economy with or without Congress.
The question of the moment may be why these Republicans and Democrats can't seem to find reasonable middle ground on the budget deficit, the national debt well, just about anything.
But some better questions are: Will we have the rule of law, or the rule of men? Whose law? Whose men?
When President Barack Obama says, "Where (Congress) won't act, I will," he treads into perilous territory.
Americans elect a president, not a king an admonition Republicans would do well to remember as they agonize over their problematic presidential field. You could say Obama is merely taking the next steps along a path prepared by his "imperial president" predecessors. They, too, met resistance from Congress.
And those presidents found ways to usurp the legislature's prerogatives from overreaching executive orders and recess appointments to signing statements in which the president refuses to enforce "unconstitutional" provisions of certain laws, rather than veto them outright.
So after entering office on a triumphant note, the president blames Congress for refusing to roll over for his agenda; North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue "jokes" that Americans might be better off suspending elections for a couple of years so Congress can "help this country recover"; and the New Republic, a supposedly liberal periodical, publishes an essay by Obama's former budget director arguing "Why we need less democracy."
Politics is exhausting. Deliberation is slow. Representative democracy is messy.
Recall how shortly after his inauguration, Obama met with Republican leaders to discuss their objections to what became the $787 billion stimulus law. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor recalled the conversation to the New York Times. Cantor said the president had told him, matter-of-factly, "There's a philosophical difference, but I won, so we're going to prevail on that."
Two years later, Republican House leaders could legitimately say the same a philosophical difference divides the GOP from their Democratic colleagues in the Senate and in the White House. But they won decisively in 2010. Republicans could hardly be blamed for doing what millions of voters elected them to do and check the president's hubris.
Obama cannot get everything he wants with a stroke of the pen. Only Congress can appropriate funds, after all. But he can set policy, create precedents and shape public opinion none necessarily for the better.
The White House in October launched a new website to market the president's new, anti-Congress posture: "We Can't Wait." Actually, we can until Nov. 8, 2012, to be precise, when the voters will have the last word on this president, this Congress and their respective agendas.
President Barack Obama's efforts to support the struggling economy should be seen as needed energy in the executive, not as a power grab.
As the president said in Kansas on Tuesday, "This isn't just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class."
This nation's economic challenges are too pressing for the president to do nothing until the November 2012 election as Ben suggests in his "Yes, we can wait" line.
The American people would be more justified in criticizing the president for irresponsibly standing by than for doing something.
Executive orders are neither new nor absolute powers, decrees by a king. All U.S. presidents have used them (except William Henry Harrison, who died one month after taking office) starting with George Washington's 1793 Neutrality Proclamation.
Ben's concern about arbitrary executive power is legitimate.
That's why we have checks and balances. Congress can hold hearings and amend, defund or overturn executive orders. Courts can strike them down. And when Congress and courts are slow to act, as with too many executive orders in the "war on terror" since 2001, the American people themselves need to push back.
When Congress abdicates the field or falls into deadlock, presidents can build public support and win lasting change if they appear decisive and willing to confront national challenges.
An example is the three decades leading up to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Presidential scholar Kenneth Mayer writes that "the presidency played a key role in using executive power to advance civil rights." Here are just two of many executive orders: President Harry Truman desegregated the military in 1948 and President Dwight Eisenhower enforced a federal court order to desegregate Little Rock schools in 1957.
Mayer concludes: "Executive action can serve as a spark to ignite a broader dialogue by placing an issue on the national agenda and extending the envelope of acceptable social policies. It can establish an anchor point for political debate, can help draw Congress and the courts along. By itself, though, it cannot create consensus where the middle ground does not otherwise exist."
That is the challenge for Obama in this hyper-partisan era.
How we speed economic recovery and rebuild a strong middle class should be a matter of urgency for the president and Congress. If the president needs to prod and drag Congress to the middle ground with executive orders, so be it. His actions on mortgage refinancing and student loans are not overreaching.
Alone they will not solve the nation's deep economic challenges. But the president, at least, is doing something constructive and deserves credit for that.
This column has been modified from the original to correct the name of the president who died in office after one month and did not use executive powers.