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Misleading the Republic: Obama at the Helm

Per the prescient Alexander Hamilton: "A feeble executive implies a feeble execution of the government."

by
David A. Eisenberg

Bio

December 6, 2009 - 12:02 am
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On the domestic front, feeble would not seem apt, at least at first glance. He is after all working to effect what rightfully is regarded as a radical restructuring of America’s framework. But ambition is not synonymous with strength. Though more successful in implementing his agenda on the domestic front than he has been on the foreign one, that success is marginal at best. Granted, his presidency is young and his designs are monumental, but given the majorities he enjoys in both the House and Senate, to say nothing of the once considerable support of the American people, one is struck far more by the degree to which he has floundered than by the inroads he has made.

This weakness is further magnified by Obama’s tendency to wield what strength he does have in an undue manner. In a world teaming with veritable enemies, Obama has devoted a disproportionate amount of his time and energy to attacking people who, at most, should be little more than a nuisance for a man in his position. After watching Obama, one is left with the impression that America’s real enemies are not the leaders who tout America’s downfall or the aggregations that endeavor to bring it about, but rather the individuals who labor on Wall Street and the organizations that gainsay his agenda. There is something unseemly about a president behaving in such a manner. It is an irresponsible and ultimately inequitable use of his power. That he has scored some victories on this front (e.g., Chrysler bond holders) comes as little surprise, but such “victories” are hardly to be celebrated and do far more to intimate a want of strength than the possession of it. Obviously the father enjoys greater strength than the child he abuses, but it is from a position of weakness that he exercises that strength against someone he is charged with protecting.

Supporters no doubt would prefer to paint Obama as a man of restraint, not of weakness. But clearly if that portrayal holds any weight, it only can be with respect to his foreign policy, not his domestic one. Unparagoned dissemblers would be needed to portray as a man of restraint one who oversees a deficit in his first year of office that is greater than the total national debt for the first 200 years of the republic. That Obama does not bear the sole blame for the deficit is clear; that his complicity is considerable is no less clear. If nothing else, by insisting on overhauling the national health care system in spite of such deficits, he has forfeited all claims to restraint with respect to domestic policy.

On the international stage, it would require far less prestidigitation to paint Obama as a man of restraint. And if his supporters prefer to see him in such a light, so be it. But even granting this, the picture is no more comforting for the very reason that, as is the case with experience, restraint is not a virtue in and of itself.

History repeatedly has made clear that in matters of war and peace, restraint can prove at least as deleterious as the lack thereof. Madison’s concern with limiting executive power rather than wielding it very well may have led to the burning of Washington. Kennedy’s restraint in the face of Khrushchev’s aggression brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. Buchanan, who took the same oath of office that his successor would take, did little to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution, and the union that it established, as he solemnly swore to do. Instead, he maintained that any use of force to preserve the union was categorically unconstitutional. Not only did he lack such authority, but so too did Congress. Had a president of commensurate “restraint” succeeded Buchanan, it is difficult to say where this nation would be — or that it would be at all.

If Buchanan serves as a forceful reminder that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm (Federalist #10),” Lincoln bears witness to the fact that there are times when that is precisely where they will be. Notwithstanding the vexatious invocations of the 16th president on behalf of this nation’s 44th, and notwithstanding the spate of panegyrics that would suggest otherwise, in the annals of history Obama’s helmsmanship will not be considered enlightened.

The nation no doubt will survive Obama’s turn at the helm, just as it has weathered other tempestuous times when enlightened statesmen were found wanting. But it will not emerge unscathed.

Such “distempers of the State” are not without value, provided the people are able to learn from them, and in those intervening years when they are cast adrift they have the presence of mind to recall, sooner rather than later, that (Federalist #21) “the natural cure for an ill-administration, in a popular or representative constitution, is a change of men.”

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David A. Eisenberg is assistant director for academic affairs in the Arts and Sciences at Columbia University and is adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Baruch College, City University of New York.
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