Obama’s “New” Agenda?

Posted on January 27, 2014 by

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There is a minor flurry of activity on the internet surrounding President Obama’s upcoming State of the Union Address. Much of it surrounds the Administration’s “new” agenda that emphasizes executive action and White House leadership, as compared to the more restrained and legislatively bound presidency we have seen up to this point. At least, this is the spin the White House is putting forth.

The Washington Post ran a story yesterday built around a memorandum, generated internally within Obama’s Administration, that lamented the White House’s lack of focus in 2013. Essentially, the memo argues that Obama was less effective since there was not an election in 2013, and that the Administration became too embroiled with Congress, and thereby lagged in popularity and influence. The solution, then, is to focus more on Executive Power and presidential influence through direct contact. Expect these themes to run through the President’s State of the Union Address on Tuesday evening.

Yuval Levin, at National Review Online, examines the memo in light of his own White House experience. He notes that President Obama has ALREADY used plenty of executive authority (say in changing implementation and enforcement dates for ObamaCare) and that the Administration is simply out of ideas. In the end, the President’s loss of credibility had little to do with being stifled by Congress, but was more the consequence of the disastrous rollout of the health care law itself, which was fully within Obama’s control. His critique is well worth a read.

Another matter, that Levin deals with, is that this notion, of a president who needs to unmoor himself from Congress in order to get things done, is a progressive trope, a dream of unfettered power. Let us be clear. A President who seeks to disentangle himself from Congress seeks to sever his ties with the Constitution and the people’s elected representatives. This idea should only be praised if we are prepared to be done with limited government.

Let me close with a quick note on the State of the Union Address. The Constitution requires, in Article 3, Section 3, the President to communicate the “state of the union” to Congress “from time to time” and to recommend actions he deems “necessary and expedient.” While Washington and Adams addressed Congress orally, Thomas Jefferson thought the practice reeked of a Monarch, so he delivered his remarks in writing. This practice was followed until Woodrow Wilson re-established the oral address to Congress. Practice fluctuated until Franklin Roosevelt cemented Wilson’s precedent.

Now, Presidents appear to us on an annual basis and preside over Congress for speeches of interminable length. While it makes for good theater, I agree with Jefferson that the practice smacks of the Crown, almost as if we should prostrate ourselves before our superior.

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