The Ought-acity of Power
In the eighteenth century, language was everything. One misused word could bring the speaker -- or the writer -- under intense scrutiny, subject him to public rebuke, and even bring him to face charges of slander or libel. Whether it be a testament to our elevated morality or our effete education -- which I leave to the reader to determine -- we are much more forgiving of verbarian misuse today than the Americans and Britons were during the Revolution. Samuel Adams frequently excoriated bureaucrats, loyalists, and even more than one governor for their words, which he believed were fundamentally indicative of their political philosophy. (Adams was himself the subject of lexical scourges, as well.)
Surely our current chief executive's predecessor had his own effluence of verbal faux pas, which became the widespread subject of satire and mockery. In response, we elected a demagogue, whose eloquence seemed surpassed only by his timbre. But while President Bush's flagrant syntactical and phonated errors may be better remembered as blunders, his successor's language requires the sort of scrutiny that Governors Bernard, Hutchinson, and Dunmore received. For while the mellifluence of his words may lull the unwary into unquestioned obedience, or foment his opponents to stalk red herrings, the denotation of his speech reveals far more about his fundamental philosophies and intents.
President Obama's speech to Congress about the American Jobs Act, and his subsequent remarks to various private individuals in the populace, while meant largely to sound moderate, are laden with implications of government control, unconstitutionality, and unrestrained bureaucracy.
The president opened his speech in the Rose Garden by issuing demands to a separate branch of government. "I'm sending this bill to Congress today," he said, "and they ought to pass it immediately." If we accept that our president, unlike the kings and royal governors of colonial America, is or should be completely separate in his duties from the legislative branch, such language must become abhorrent to the constitutional ear. The word "ought" has no business being issued toward the legislature from the executive. Legally, it implies obligation; it implies superiority; it implies repercussions if its following infinitive (in this case, "to pass") is ignored or disobeyed. It is an executive Mandamus upon a separated branch; it implies that the issuer is the trunk and root, while the intended recipients are merely the disposable limbs of government and leaves of society. The word is intimately related to the word "owe," and it seems the president would consider Congress his debtors.
No, Congress ought not do anything upon the executive's command. The congressmen are not his legislative minions, expected only to assent to his proposals; nor are they his Star Chamber, an ostensibly legitimized extension of his executive authority. The Congress is a co-operative branch, with each member representing the property and principles of his or her constituents.
Much was said about President Obama's lack of leadership in the debt ceiling debates, but if we continually demand that the president draft legislation, we give him a de facto vote, and the power to unduly influence the national course. A Tyrant, which Locke describes as he who usurps power that is not rightly his own, need not take his power by force or manipulation; he often simply seizes the advantage of an unsuspecting and complacent populace, who mistakenly see gradual usurpation -- like the slow growth of a tree -- as normal (or even beneficial), until all power is vested in a single overshadowing force, the philosophical roots of which extend as deep and wide as its political appendages.
Imagine the reverse; imagine that Congress told the president, "You ought to execute a law by our standard," or "You ought to maneuver troops in a manner consistent with our philosophy." Such statements are equally dangerous to a republic, for they usurp the constitutional prerogative of one branch into another. They may pass further legislation, even upon a negative from the executor; they may withhold grants of their constituents' money to influence military policy; but they cannot prohibit the president or his cabinet from executing a passed law -- passed within their own legislative confines -- nor can they manipulate the maneuver of manpower and materiel after it has been financed.
But our executive branch has increasingly become involved in the legislative process -- and not only recently -- allowing the executive to exact, extort, and exploit the represented property of the people, while the Constitution relegates him only to executing. The Constitution is unforgiving in this. It states that the president "shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." But not only has His Presidency only demanded Congress's consideration of his measures; he has demanded their assent to his legislation.
Modernly, we learn in our political science and civics classes that the "Eight Presidential Roles" are Commander in Chief, Chief Executive, Chief of State, Chief Administrator, Chief Diplomat, Chief Citizen, Chief of Party, and Chief Legislator. "Chief Administrator," "Chief Diplomat," and "Party Chief" are aconstitutional roles, but those of "Chief Citizen" (which requires a different discussion) and "Chief Legislator" are completely unconstitutional. The idea that an executive may also be legislator-in-chief is -- like social Darwinism, fascism, compelled philanthropy, and supervised equality -- a product of historical materialism and Rankean historiography. The former requires someone to supervise existence; the latter allows one generation to reject the precedents of their fathers. It has no more business being allowed in a serious discussion of American constitutional politics than does the idea of Communism, absolute monarchy, or any other institutional policy that allows an individual to subvert the Supreme Law of the Land.
A simple word, such as "ought," may seem benign and inconsequential. And one could make the argument, based solely on that word, that I am niggling with the president's words. However, let the reader judge my argument also based on our current executive's past performances.
Andrew Schwartz is a summa cum laude historian out of Old Dominion University who focuses on early American political and intellectual history.