In a short speech on Wednesday, Obama declared, “When I can act on my own without Congress, I’m going to do so.” He may have been referring specifically to unemployment benefits. But the fact remains that this characterizes his presidency (or should we say “reign”?). In the years preceding the ratification of the US Constitution, a group of wise and prescient men wrote some articles that unfortunately did not have the impact they should have. These men, known now as the Anti-Federalists, were wary (among other things) of the powers we were then investing in the executive branch. Check out this uncannily accurate warning, more relevant now than ever:
It is, therefore, obvious to the least intelligent mind [The Anti-Federalists may have “mis-over-estimated” our intelligence…] to account why great power in the hands of a magistrate, and that power connected with considerable duration, may be dangerous to the liberties of a republic. The deposit of vast trusts in the hands of a single magistrate enables him in their exercise to create a numerous train of dependents. This tempts his ambition, which in a republican magistrate is also remarked, to be pernicious, and the duration of his office for any considerable time favors his views, gives him the means and time to perfect and execute his designs; he therefore fancies that he may be great and glorious by oppressing his fellow citizens, and raising himself to permanent grandeur on the ruins of his country. . . . His power of nomination and influence on all appointments; the strong posts in each state comprised within his superintendence, and garrisoned by troops under his direction; his control over the army, militia, and navy; the unrestrained power of granting pardons for treason, which may be used to screen from punishment those whom he had secretly instigated to commit the crime, and thereby prevent a discovery of his own guilt; his duration in office for four years—these, and various other principles evidently prove the truth of the position, that if the president is possessed of ambition, he has power and time sufficient to ruin his country.
The Anti-Federalists were concerned that the executive branch was nothing more than a thinly-veiled monarchy. That seemed less accurate in 1787. People then believed that the legislative power would balance the executive. The President needed a Congressional declaration of war to deploy troops. The legislative held the purse strings. The President couldn’t just write laws.
Not so much. Congress hasn’t formally declared war since World War II, yet we have troops deployed all over the world. Congress is strong-armed into funding whatever the current administration deems fit. And the President can legislate through executive orders all he wants. If you were still wondering whether the Anti-Federalists were right, let me just repeat what Obama said yesterday: “When I can act on my own without Congress, I am going to do so.” If Obama needed a motto, I would recommend this: “Raising myself to permanent grandeur on the ruins of my country.” It has a certain ring to it, no?