The President’s State of the Union last Tuesday was somewhat conventional with its heartwarming accounts of American industry and selective use of statistics, but it definitely provided a good snapshot of the current role of the executive branch in American politics.
The issue that has received the most attention from media outlets was President Obama’s promise to “take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families,” “wherever and whenever” he could. Later in his speech, the President promised to use this asserted executive authority to raise the minimum wage for all federal contractors. This cavalier attitude towards the separation of powers set forth in the Constitution is shocking: The executive and legislative powers are set up precisely to prevent the emergence of a king-like protector who writes the laws he will later enforce.
Ironically, the President seemed very eager to pass the buck to Congress on challenging issues such as immigration, Guantanamo Bay and NSA surveillance programs. The executive does in fact have a lot of control over these issues, but unfortunately Obama has proven more eager to exercise his executive prerogative to ignore laws he disagrees with than to protect constitutional rights.
In the last year, Obama has made liberal use of the executive order to scale back the deportations of illegal immigrants and to routinely modify the Affordable Care Act, most notably delaying the employer mandate until 2015. In contrast, Guantanamo Bay remains open, and surveillance activities have only grown more intrusive since the Bush years.
Despite calls to hand our children “a safer, more stable world” and get serious about economic growth, there was little mention of the nation’s out-of-control spending or ballooning debt. The President had few suggestions for reform, but he made sure to point out that the national deficit had been cut in half in 2013. This is true, but so is the fact that this deficit was over a trillion dollars each year for Obama’s entire first term. Under his watch, the national debt has soared from 11 to 17 trillion dollars. So Obama’s goal to have immigration reform save a trillion dollars over the next ten years, while commendable, is hardly enough to “[bring] down our deficit in a balanced way.”
Of course, there was the mandatory shout-out to the Affordable Care Act, which may well be the lasting legacy of the Obama Administration. The President chose his words carefully as he declared that “more than nine million Americans have signed up for private health insurance or Medicaid coverage.” He was careful because it’s unclear how many of those people had already been covered by private insurance or Medicaid. He also neglected to mention the estimated four to five million Americans who have received cancellation notices from their private insurance companies because of the law’s new requirements.
However, the speech certainly had its merits. The President’s focus on immigration reform inspired Republicans to release a statement on the issue later that week, and leaders of both parties have shown interest in finding common ground. Freedom and free markets demand that people be free to travel and trade, and it appears that a path to citizenship may finally be laid out for all those who wish to claim the blessings America has to offer.
Some of the President’s foreign policy remarks were also laudable. Obama commented, “We must fight the battles that need to be fought, not those that terrorists prefer from us – large-scale deployments that drain our strength and may ultimately feed extremism,” and he later declared, “America must move off a permanent war footing.” This is not only important for the sake of fiscal responsibility, but also because war is often used as an excuse to expand the government and infringe on civil liberties.
Unfortunately, the Obama Administration’s policies over the past five years in combination with other comments in the State of the Union suggest that all this may have been little more than lip service. The President admitted that a “small force of Americans” (10,000-strong according to news reports) could stay in Afghanistan after the war officially ends this year, and that we should “aggressively pursue terrorist networks” in Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Mali and Syria.
Though he claimed he wouldn’t send troops into harm’s way unless it were “truly necessary,” we should remember that the President doesn’t have full authority, at least in theory, to decide when to send troops into battle. While the War Powers Resolution of 1973 – a resolution that presidents have long chafed at – allows undeclared military engagements of up to 60 days, only Congress can declare war under the Constitution. Recent debacles in the Middle East have shown what happens when we disregard these safeguards.
Frankly, it’s scary that a president is not only tolerated, but cheered and applauded when he announces intentions to bypass Congress, continue foreign wars and ignore Fourth Amendment protections with the NSA’s warrantless mass data collection. If anything, the State of the Union revealed just how willing Americans are to accept government overreach and lawlessness if a proposed policy’s intentions or goals are deemed sufficiently ‘good’ or ‘important’ – or if the perpetrator happens to belong to their party.
We cannot accept this. We may not all agree on what laws ought to be passed or repealed, but it is crucial to both liberty and order that we abide by the ones we have. We undermine the power of our laws and the very legitimacy of our government when we obey only at our convenience.
Contact Josh Jones at [email protected].