Will Obama’s pursuit of executive power backfire?

In his State of the Union message on Tuesday, Barack Obama promised “a year of action,” inadvertently echoing Richard Nixon in both rhetoric and perhaps tone. Obama threatened that if Congress didn’t come along on his agenda, he’d take unilateral action to impose it instead. This has the potential to backfire on Obama, Stephanie Simon argues at Politico, by firing up the Republican base even more in a midterm election year:

Obama’s use of executive power could come back to haunt him.

Republicans in Congress, infuriated at being bypassed, are using every shred of authority they can muster to try to halt or delay the president’s agenda. At the very least, they figure, they can whip up public outrage, drive down Obama’s approval rating and perhaps persuade him to retreat.

The executive agenda outlined in the Politico Pro report — which described an administration eager to shape everything from the content of third-grade math tests to the recipe for Reese’s Pieces to the fuel sources that power our homes — spooks voters, and not just Republicans, said Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah). “This is something that people react to viscerally,” Stewart said. …

Republicans have also filed lawsuits and legislative amendments trying to rein in executive power. One resolution calling for the House to take stronger legal action is sponsored by Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.). He calls it the S.T.O.P. act – for Stop This Overreaching Presidency.

Big business and big industry have stepped in, too. They’ve sued to overturn regulations. They’ve also sought to delay the rule-making process by demanding more time to evaluate draft regulations — and then flooding agencies with comments.

Republican outrage has focused on executive orders, but that’s a little too narrow and a bit misplaced. The White House has been careful to keep EOs within the boundaries of executive power, if perhaps testing it at the edges. The EO on the minimum wage for federal contracts, for instance, lives within those boundaries even if (a) it won’t actually impact more than a handful of people anyway and (b) is bad policy nonetheless.

The real issue with the abuse of executive authority comes in sins of commission and omission that have nothing to do with EOs. For instance, the most egregious abuse is the war Obama launched against the Qaddafi regime in Libya without ever bothering to ask Congress for authorization. But there are plenty of other examples closer to home, especially in the arbitrary adherence to statute in the President’s own favorite law, ObamaCare, and many other examples of regulatory adventurism, as noted by Simon. That, plus the defiance of Congressional oversight by lawless recess appointments and the abuse of executive privilege, have made this into a truly imperial presidency, and has set precedents that Democrats will almost certainly rue, and sooner rather than later.

This abuse erodes the basic fabric of a nation based on the rule of law, as Elizabeth Price Foley argued in the New York Times this week (via Instapundit):

The only strength gained by unilateral presidential lawmaking is raw speed: policies can be implemented more swiftly by unilateral presidential action than by congressional deliberation and debate. But the dangers are many, and should counsel any American — of whatever political persuasion — that such dispatch comes at a high constitutional cost.

When the president fails to execute a law as written, he not only erodes the separation of powers, he breeds disrespect for the rule of law and increases political polarization. The president’s own party — for example, the current Democrat-controlled Senate — will face intense pressure to elevate short-term, partisan victory over defending constitutional principles. If partisan preferences prevail, Congress will be unable, as an institution, to check presidential ambition and defend its lawmaking prerogative.

Once such precedent is established, damage to the constitutional architecture is permanent. The next president of a different party will face similar pressures and undo all the previous actions. He will initiate a new round of unilateral lawmaking, satisfying his own political base. The law will fluctuate back and forth, and our legislature will become little more than a rubber stamp for a single elected individual, which is not how representative government is supposed to work.

The reason this will backfire is that imperial presidencies only impress the loyal base of the President’s party, who mistake autocracy for wisdom. They tend to worry and frighten everyone else, especially when the result is the unmistakable incompetence of this administration on both domestic and foreign policy.  Expect the backlash on all of these points this year.