Ben Boychuk

Imperial presidency threatens our republic

‘ I’m not a king,” President Barack Obama said in 2010. “I am not a dictator,” he announced to the White House press corps in 2013. “I’m not emperor of the United States,” he said the same year.

On the question of immigration, Obama told Telemundo last year, “My job as the head of the executive branch ultimately is to carry out the law.”

But that was before the Republicans trounced the Democrats in the midterms. In 2010, the president already had exercised his discretion to spare from deportation more than 1 million minors living in the United States illegally.

Last week, he halted the deportations of some 5 million more. He said he had no choice because Congress wasn’t “doing their job. ”

Technically, the president is not a king, a dictator, or an emperor. Nor is the Congress a parliament that exists only to rubber-stamp the president’s agenda. But what would you call an executive unconstrained by the Constitution and a citizenry that seems to have ceded its freedoms to the whims of a vast administrative state?

On Monday night, after a grand jury in St. Louis County, Mo., announced it would not indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, the president took to the airwaves to remind Americans that we are “a nation built on the rule of law.”

But are we still a nation of laws when a president can suddenly decide to invoke “prosecutorial discretion” to exempt millions of people from the nation’s immigration laws?

Attorney and Powerline blogger John Hinderaker recently announced “the Obama Non-Enforcement Doctrine,” which holds that “a president is not required to implement or enforce laws passed by Congress with which he disagrees.”

It’s easy to imagine a future Republican president relying on the Obama precedent to, for example, not enforce certain tax laws aimed at corporations.

ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos posed that exact scenario to Obama on Sunday. “Absolutely not,” the president replied.

Well, why not? A year ago, the president said he couldn’t do what he just did on immigration because “then essentially I’ll be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally. So that’s not an option.” Turns out, almost everything is an option.

To the Obama Non-Enforcement Doctrine, I would like to add the Honda Corollary. Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, took issue this week with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul compared the president’s sweeping immigration announcement with Franklin Roosevelt’s order to intern some 120,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

“Every president has the constitutional right to use executive orders,” Honda said. “What Senator Paul fails to say, recognize or admit to, is the motive and outcome of the use of this power. President Obama is using this power correctly. President Roosevelt did not.”

In other words, it’s the thought that counts.

This is no way to run a republic. A republic requires representative government ruled by a constitution. A republic requires deliberation. A republic is concerned with protecting the rights of individuals, not pandering to groups.

Welcome to post-republican, through-the-looking-glass America, where the Constitution means whatever happens to be politically expedient at the moment, no more and no less.

In post-republican America, federal agencies run months-long sting operations to bust unpasteurized cheese and milk vendors, and the U.S. Department of Education has a SWAT team.

In post-republican America, the Federal Election Commission appears keen to regulate Internet speech because somewhere a blogger might persuade someone to vote, which could constitute an “in-kind contribution” and therefore be subject to a raft of rules and regulations. First Amendment? What’s that?

In post-republican America, college students routinely assert a right “not to be offended” and they’re pleased to remain on their parents’ health insurance until they’re 26. Freedom and independence are not as valuable as they once were.

Many of my conservative friends predicted that Barack Obama would be the ruin of the nation. The truth is, we’ve been living in post-republican America for a very long time. Almost every president since Woodrow Wilson has stretched the limits of executive power. Almost every Congress has assented. And the courts have only occasionally objected.

Astounding, when you think about it, the way we’ve squandered our birthright without quite realizing it.

When the framers emerged from their contentious Philadelphia convention with a new constitution in 1787, a society matron approached Benjamin Franklin and asked, “Well, doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Without missing a beat, Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

We couldn’t keep it. What a pity.

Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at bboychuk@city-journal.org.

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