In December 2007, Sen. Barack Obama’s reassurances to the Boston Globe suggested that he understood constitutional limits on executive and government power. He knew that there were things the “president does not have power under the Constitution” to do, including unilaterally authorizing military action and surveilling citizens without warrants. He said he would “reject the Bush administration’s claim that the president has plenary authority under the Constitution to detain U.S. citizens without charges as unlawful enemy combatants.”
That thoughtful skeptic of executive power now sits in the Oval Office. Isolating random bits of his presidential rhetoric, you can almost believe that he understands how a society really thrives. Obama said in his pseudo-State of the Union Address, “The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth.”
But in just three months, we have seen what Obama means when he talks about “reach.” He doesn’t mean “our reach” but his own. His sense of that reach, and the abrupt and scary speed with which he’s used it, marks him as an executive with a tentacled grip—multiple, crushing, inescapable. No longer the cautious critic of presidential power of the campaign trail, he now sees nothing as beyond his grasp.
Less than a hundred days in, the fully articulated ideological contours of his vision remain unclear—just as he wishes. It suits Obama’s self-image as a mere pragmatic problem solver to never explain, to float from power grab to usurpation as if nothing but thoughtful reaction to the exigencies of the moment guides him. But it’s already obvious that those actions veer strongly toward expansive government, limiting our options in every aspect of national life.
Budget: The government fiscal game works as well as it does politically because most people don’t think of government spending in terms of control over their lives. Most see it as a benefit, a graceful solution to a perceived lack. Healthcare? Obama’s approximated buy—in is $600 billion over a decade—a figure sure to come up grossly short if history is any guide. But most think, well, I’m not the one with $600 billion to toss, so why not?
That money, plus all the many other nonexistent trillions Obama is planning to spend, gets paid back either in debt service down the line—funneling a larger percentage of the lifeblood, time, and effort of our children to Washington and thence to whoever’s brave enough to hold U.S. debt by then—or in inflation that eats away at any attempt on our part to save or invest profitably.
When, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s analysis of Obama’s spending plans, the U.S. government deficit-spends $9.3 trillion over the next decade, that’s more than an absurd abstraction. It’s enslavement: the hours and days of our lives.
Business and the economy: Here Obama’s grip is far less subtle. He’s clear and decisive: The financial and industrial economy is his, and he’ll do with it as he pleases. What’s decided for the U.S. is what’s decided for General Motors, as presidential pressure pushes out GM chief Rick Wagoner. Obama and his man at Treasury, Timothy Geithner, want the power to confiscate any company whose failure they claim threatens the larger economy.
Now that he occupies the White House, the new president—who justly pilloried Bush for asserting that national security excused any executive ukase—seems to believe that his own vision of economic security empowers him to take whatever he wants and make any decision he deems necessary, from curtailing CEO compensation to renegotiating mortgage terms. What private sector? This is economic war!
And lest one think this is all about being faithful stewards of the public wealth, as Obama and Geithner like to play it, The Wall Street Journal reported that an unnamed bank was not allowed to return money the Feds had stuck it with in the first bailout wave. The strings attached to those bailout funds gave the federal government effective ownership over the bank; evidently the Obama administration values an excuse for control more than it values taxpayer money.
It also seems primed to use more traditional means of throwing weight around the national economy. The president’s pick for antitrust chief, Christine Varney, has already cast a stink eye at Google, expressing concern at a conference last year about the company’s “monopoly in Internet online advertising.” And Obama’s pick to head the Department of Agriculture, former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, is an enthusiastic supporter of one of the most foolish and damaging federal economic manipulations around, endless ethanol subsidies. Any noises about damping down agricultural subsidies in general, supposedly part of the “fiscally responsible” Obama agenda, are dying in Congress.
State secrets: Even Obama’s most ardent supporters are disillusioned by his close adherence to the Bush model when it comes to executive privilege. Obama’s DOJ has openly agreed that lawsuits challenging rendition and warrantless-wiretapping programs should be dismissed because trying them would expose state secrets. His legal team declares that the president—and only the president—has the right to make such classified decisions, with neither courts nor Congress, and of course no one as inconsequential as an aggrieved citizen, able to second guess.
That’s troubling enough, but it’s not all. While Attorney General Eric Holder has released some Bush-era documents relating to torture policy, the Obama administration as a whole is, as this article went to press, agonizing over whether to release a further set said to be even more heinous. (Even if they eventually release them, that this wasn’t a no-brainer shows executive secrecy is still far too robust in the administration.) Even an international intellectual-property treaty being actively considered by 27 countries had its contents declared a national-security secret in an Obama DOJ filing in March.
Healthcare: We don’t yet know what combination of mandates, subsidies, government-supplied insurance, and controls will arise. But we do know that the cornerstone of the cost containment Obama seeks will be decisions about what gets covered by the insurance that the government will be guaranteeing, regulating, and demanding. This means rationing and a potentially fatal blow to one of the last markets where expensive and experimental new treatments can be developed and, if found worthwhile, thrive.
Given how Obama has shown such a scrupulous sense of pipers and their right to call the tune in the financial and automotive markets, he is apt to be more explicit than past politicians in insisting that any behavior by companies or individuals that costs the public money must be stringently controlled. That means your health will no longer be your own business but Barack Obama’s.