Obama Administration

Beware Obama's Big Ideas

The president and his fans say the best is yet to come. That can't be good.

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The way President Barack Obama's acolytes are calling for bold action in his second term, you'd think he had been some kind of prudent Calvin Coolidge in his first. 

"A strategic second term would begin by identifying a list of necessary and achievable goals, and then pursuing them with the unyielding manipulative skill of a Lyndon Johnson," Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote after Obama's decisive victory over hapless challenger Mitt Romney in November. "Think big. Take risks. Get it done."

"Take this second chance to get it right on housing," wrote Tracy Van Slyke, director of something called the New Bottom Line, at The Huffington Post, "and use your mandate to help the millions of underwater homeowners across this country." Atlantic Associate Editor Matthew O'Brien didn't even wait for the election results to come in, calling on the president in October to unveil a bold second-term agenda that would embrace the "vision thing" by resurrecting his deep-sixed American Jobs Act. 

Given that Obama won re-election largely by not talking about his record, it's probably not surprising that so many people don't seem to have noticed what happened from 2009 through 2012. To recap, Obama rammed through a massive overhaul of medical care in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. ObamaCare. He piled another $830 billion or so onto the national debt with his American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a. the stimulus. He also managed to push total debt over $16 trillion. 

When the Affordable Care Act's most radical component, the requirement that every American be forced to purchase health insurance, came up for Supreme Court review, the president's bumbling attorneys lucked into a tortured decision in their favor, and the law was upheld by a 5-to-4 margin. Capitalizing on (though not actually solving) the financial crisis that helped him gain office, Obama in 2010 signed the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, bringing a massive new cudgel to the financial industry (which had hardly been free of Washington oversight and protection prior to that) and creating a federal "consumer" agency whose scope is still not well understood. 

Unfazed by a public rebuke in the 2010 midterm elections, Obama continued his mission through a daunting new strategy of regulatory rule making, executive orders, administration through "White House liaison officers," and recess appointments of congressionally unpopular nominees. (These last have been carried out even when Congress was not in recess.) Such tactics are necessary to patch a weakness Obama has discovered in American government: the foundational structure of checks and balances.

"When Congress refuses to act, and as a result, hurts our economy and puts our people at risk, then I have an obligation as president to do what I can without them," the president told a crowd in Shaker Heights, Ohio, in January 2011. "I've got an obligation to act on behalf of the American people. And I'm not going to stand by while a minority in the Senate puts party ideology ahead of the people that we were elected to serve. Not with so much at stake, not at this make-or-break moment for middle-class Americans. We're not going to let that happen."

Following that bold conviction, Obama launched a war in Libya without even the almost-constitutional fig leaf of a congressional authorization vote (thus making him even less deferential to Congress' war-making power than George W. Bush). This "kinetic action" seemed to be a rousing success until the U.S. ambassador was killed by terrorists in September—an episode the administration has worked tirelessly to obscure. 

Obama has also claimed powers of life and death beyond Bush's wildest ambitions, granting to himself a new presidential authority to kill citizens and noncitizens alike, both on U.S. soil and abroad, while asserting that an Oval Office discussion with advisers qualifies as constitutional due process. 

After all that, what would Obama fans consider an ambitious second-term agenda? I guess mandatory self-esteem boosts, universal health care for cats, and a global war on melancholy haven't been tried yet. But Obama's penchant for intervening in all aspects of American life (according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he added 11,327 pages to the Code of Federal Regulations, a 7.4 percent increase, in his first three years) while overlooking constitutional niceties has produced a consistent pattern: As you get more regulation, you get less law. 

For some of us, this is a problem. Law is big and clear. It applies equally to the great and small. You can usually be confident that a law has passed at least some level of civic scrutiny. Regulation, by contrast, is small and stifling. It places burdens primarily on individuals and small companies that don't have sufficient lawyerly infrastructure. 

And there's no way to know which White House czar or career apparatchik composed any particular regulation. For example, who at Eric Holder's Department of Justice (DOJ) decided in 2011 that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires hotels, restaurants, and airlines to accommodate "pygmy ponies" as service animals. (And should we be glad the DOJ is mandating horse fairness instead of giving more guns to Mexican drug cartels?)

"The best is yet to come," Obama promised in his November victory speech. And the election result gave him some justification for that promise. He won a lopsided electoral victory and, rare in modern presidential races, a popular majority. This is what makes the second term such a matter of concern.

Nearly 61 million voters have gotten to know Obama's mix of soaring rhetoric and bureaucratic reality, messianic claims and crushing mandates, cultish iconography and lawless actions, grand hopes and bland changes. And they decided they wanted more of it. 

I don't expect that avoiding the "fiscal cliff" will be reward enough for those folks. Obama came into office with talk of reversing the tides, healing the earth, and "fundamentally transforming the United States of America." He has hinted at delivering big things in the security of a second term. If the first act was any indication, those things are going to suck.