Over the winter break, I finally got around to binge-watching Parks and Recreation. In case you missed the show's seven-year run, it's about a fascistic small-town councilwoman who believes it's a politician's job to impose her notions of morality, safety and decency on everyone, no matter what voters want or what the system dictates. She is justifiably recalled by the people of her town after attempting to regulate portion sizes at fast-food restaurants but ends up running a federal office where she can do big things without the consent of the people.
Now, I realize that most of the show's fans see the narrative in a vastly different light and the protagonist, Leslie Knope, as the sort of idealistic, compassionate and principled politician Americans should love. Parks and Rec can be fantastically funny (and it has a big heart), but as I watched, I was often reminded that many people glorify the idea of "public service"—a preposterous term that treats politics as if it were a sacrifice without pay, power or prestige—and "doing something" as a moral imperative, no matter how politicians get it done.
When I got back from my winter vacation, America was still being run by a two-term president who believes it's his job to impose his notions of morality, safety and decency on everyone, often trying to work around the limits the system places on him. This week, Barack Obama is going to institute new restrictions on Americans unilaterally—expanding background checks, closing supposed "loopholes" and tightening the process for law-abiding gun owners—because Congress "won't act" and also because he believes it's the right thing to do. Neither of those is a compelling reason to legislate from the White House.
Perhaps no post-World War II president (and maybe none before) has justified his executive overreach by openly contending he was working around the lawmaking branch of government because it had refused to do what he desired. Whether a court finds his actions constitutional or not, it's an argument that stands, at the very least, against the spirit of American governance. Today many liberals call this "leadership."
The likeliest result of his new gun push will be that hundreds of thousands of Americans who understandably fear the mission creep of government will end up buying a whole bunch of guns. The flow of donations to Second Amendment advocacy groups will almost certainly rise, and gun violence—which has fallen considerably over the past 20 years of gun ownership expansion—will not be addressed.
But more consequential—and this may be the most destructive legacy of the Obama presidency—is the mainstreaming of the idea that if Congress "fails to act," it's OK for the president to figure out a way to make law himself. Hillary Clinton's already applauded Obama's actions because, as she put it, "Congress won't act; we have to do something." This idea is repeated perpetually by the left, in effect arguing that we live in a direct democracy run by the president (until a Republican is in office, of course). On immigration, on global warming, on Iran, on whatever crusade liberals are on, the president has a moral obligation to act if Congress doesn't do what he wants.
To believe this, you'd have to accept two things: that Congress has a responsibility to pass bills on issues important to the president and that Congress has not already acted.
In 2013, the Senate rejected legislation to expand background checks for gun purchases and to ban certain weapons and ammunition, and it would almost certainly oppose nearly every idea Obama has to curb gun ownership today. Congress has acted, just not in the manner Obama desires.
If President George W. Bush had instituted a series of restrictions on the abortion industry—seeing as it has a loud, well-organized and well-funded lobby that wants to make abortions "effortlessly" available—without congressional input, would that have been procedurally OK with liberals? You know, for the children? I don't imagine so.
The truth is that Obama has attempted to govern without Congress ever since Democrats rammed the Affordable Care Act through. It was the first time any consequential reform was instituted by a single political party, poisoning any chance of building consensus on major legislation in the foreseeable future. Since then, Republicans have frustrated Democrats—and on nearly every issue that matters to Obama. Obama has gone as far as he can—and sometimes farther—to administer law through our loudest, largest, most powerful and best-funded bureaucracies.
A lot of people justify this behavior for the most obvious reason: They don't care about process; they only care about issues. It's true that the upside of executive orders and actions is that they can be easily undone when a new president is elected. But with the intractability of both parties only becoming more pronounced, the temptation to use the Obama model of legislating through the executive branch will become increasingly attractive to politicians and their supporters.
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