Anyone who believes the talk about how Barack Obama is already a lame-duck president, detached and irrelevant, is deluding himself. President Obama has accomplished more or less what he set out to accomplish. He has made himself the most consequential and transformative president since Lyndon Johnson. His foreign policy has been more systematically destructive of the world order and American power than LBJ’s Vietnam War. His wrong-headed domestic policy has proved more catastrophic and intentionally hard to correct than Johnson’s madcap War on Poverty, whose consequences still bedevil our society.
On the domestic front, Obama has overturned American health care, one-sixth of the nation’s economy and an industry that affects everyone. True, Obamacare is a mess, but it has destroyed the existing health-insurance system, and it will take the next administration, along with the health and insurance industries, a long time both to figure out what a crazy tangle Obamacare has created and then to untangle the confusion, some of it intentional, some inadvertent. Do we want employer-funded health insurance? Mutual insurance companies? An individual tax deduction for health-insurance premiums? Catastrophic care coverage? National rather than state-regulated insurance companies? What do we do about those with pre-existing conditions? What do we do with those supposedly “covered” by Obamacare? Obama has preempted the option of a slow, Burkean evolution to a better and more rational arrangement from the employer-paid system that grew half-accidentally out of World War II price controls. Now we have anarchy, and it will require leadership and vision beyond what America usually can call upon to hose out Obama’s Augean stables and create order.
Meanwhile, the president has overturned the Constitution to keep his command-and-control health-insurance scheme alive. The law that Congress wrote (but didn’t read, under the shameless leadership of Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi) turned out to be, as was inevitable, filled with holes and errors. No matter: a presidential edict a day keeps collapse away. But the Constitution doesn’t allow for government by executive edict. That’s for monarchy or dictatorship. Nevertheless, after such an example, it will take us some time to reestablish the principle that the president’s duty is to see that the laws are faithfully executed, and that his power doesn’t go beyond that—doesn’t extend, for example, to abolishing our national border.
Now that the days of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster—not to mention Sam Ervin—are almost mythical memories, we live in the less lofty era of Elizabeth Warren and Charlie Rangel, and under the shadow of the 1974 Budget Act, by which the House of Representatives threw away its power of the purse, weakening the Madisonian machinery of checks and balances. As a result, we have a presidency more imperial than Richard Nixon would have dared imagine, and it will take time to restore something resembling our constitutional order. History will remember Reid and Pelosi as being nearly as important as Clay or Calhoun—but with a completely different valuation, diminishing the power and prestige of their institutions by abusing them, like Joe McCarthy or Martin Dies. And if the administrative state conceived in the Progressive Era, and brought to fruition by the New Deal, intentionally overturned the Founding Fathers’ constitutional order, Obamacare’s Independent Payment Advisory Board—free of oversight by the people’s elected representatives—or the Dodd-Frank Act’s similarly anti-democratic Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have taken that fourth branch of government (utterly unsanctioned by the Constitution, as Franklin Roosevelt said, even as he was expanding it) to anti-constitutional extremes that make a mockery of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” and would have the Founding Fathers spinning in their graves.
Abroad, we see the ruin that an incoherent American foreign policy and wanton abdication of power has permitted. If President Obama thought President George W. Bush’s freedom agenda naïve—and, to be sure, how can tribal peoples with tribal loyalties and medieval customs develop overnight the rule of law, sanctity of contract, disinterested administration, and rational discourse that it took Western civilization centuries to nurture—why would he and his remarkably maladroit secretaries of state expect the Arab Spring to produce exactly that impossible outcome? Why would the president stick so long by the sectarian bigot Nuri al-Maliki, who can only bring about chaos, division, and bloodshed? Why would Obama not arm the Kurds and let them form their own semi-autonomous region, oil-rich and grateful for U.S. support—if only they had it? Why would he tell Israel to stop interdicting terrorist missiles from Gaza, until our democratic ally, Benjamin Netanyahu, finally told him to shut up, while meanwhile anarchy rages across the blood-drenched region, as the Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad fights off the seventh-century fanatics of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, one tyranny against another, with collateral damage measured in tens of thousands of bodies—and not one word from the Leader of the Free World? And one would have said of Russian czar Vladimir Putin what Max Eastman once wrote of Ernest Hemingway—“Come out from behind that false hair on your chest, Ernest. We all know you”—except that this administration’s “reset” of U.S. relations with Russia, meaning meek acquiescence in all that Russia does, has turned a paper tiger into a real one, with almost 20,000 soldiers on the Ukrainian border, armed with the most modern engines of murder, as they have already shown with a feral smirk.
It is proverbially easy to destroy something but hard to build it up. Faced with such wreckage of policies and systems laboriously constructed by Americans over decades and centuries, who knows where to start the work of repair, and how to do it? And that’s the final, intentional destruction Barack Obama has wrought: he has the Republican opposition, already creaking with ideological strains, in internal turmoil about almost everything, since everything is so out of joint.
“Show our critics a great man,” wrote historian and biographer Thomas Carlyle, “they begin to what they call ‘account’ for him. . . . He was the ‘creature of the Time,’ they say; the Time called him forth, the Time did everything, he nothing. . . . The Time call forth? Alas, we have known Times call loudly enough for their great man; but not find him when they called! . . . [T]he Time, calling its loudest, had to go down to confusion and wreck because he would not come when called.” The present time is calling loudly, too, and we must hope that leaders of vision, courage, eloquence, patriotism, and prudence will step forward to start us on the work of repair.