A Lesson on Presidential Power
It comes a shock to discover that liberal Hollywood has provided a powerful response to the expanded presidential power sought by Barack Obama and other progressives. Steven Spielberg has produced a cinematic powerhouse, Lincoln, in which our 16th President utters an intriguing soliloquy: Lincoln expresses his doubts about the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation as it pertains to the freedom of slaves in the Border States and whether it can endure after the cessation of hostilities. He goes on to explain that this is the rationale for pursuing the Thirteenth Amendment despite the political costs. He seeks to use Constitutional means to achieve a political end, not to circumvent our founding document. More surprisingly, this portrayal is based upon liberal historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book, Team of Rivals
Lincoln's admonition to Republican supporters, radical and conservative, comes with an acknowledgement of the severe limits placed upon him during peacetime. His power during war, though limited, was expanded to include suspension of "habeas corpus". In the Proclamation, he argued that slaves were property that could be taken under war powers. Once peace returned, that argument would itself be used to continue the institution by Southern states. Lincoln intended to end that 'peculiar institution" after the loss of over 600,000 American lives.
His means of obtaining lasting change would not be presidential fiat through executive orders, but by legal means without resort to the courts. He would seek a vote in the House of 2/3 majority for passage of an amendment to our Constitution. The Senate passed the resolution during his lifetime, but the ratification by ¾ of the states would come after his death. Our founders had provided a method of correcting or modernizing this contractual document. It is an American approach to correcting serious defects within our Union as opposed to extra-constitutional methods. It is shocking that this message is being delivered by a progressive Hollywood director.
As the administration prepares for the next term, it would be wise to heed this message: there are limits to presidential power. Lincoln used his mandate to carry out a Constitutional program, while Obama utilizes bureaucratic orders to promulgate ends that he cannot secure through the political process. The EPA is directed to extend its reach to limit the use of carbon fuel sources. The Health and Human Services secretary forces religious institutions (though not Churches) to offer contraceptives, including the 'day after pill". The Labor Relations Board rules against Boeing when it tries to establish a factory in a right to work state. These actions threaten to thwart the public will.
Politics is not clean: deals are made and prices must be paid. The passage of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 included many payoffs to secure votes. Lincoln himself secured House votes through offers of federal employment for defeated Democrats in exchange for support of the Thirteenth Amendment. This is how politics works. Our founders were well aware of this and so they limited the possible scope of such conspiracies.
As Daniel Day Lewis, in the role of Lincoln, rises to proclaim that as president he was "clothed in immense power", it becomes evident that this power must be used to accomplish a political victory through Constitutional means. Since 1900 and the progressive era, few presidents have been willing to risk political capital for such worthy causes and have chosen to use easier methods such as agency rule making.
Reconstruction might have proceeded with easier terms had Booth's bullet not been fatal. Lincoln might have been a steadier leader than the Radical Republicans who managed the nation afterwards. In his second inaugural address he offered "malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." Despite efforts to bring an earlier end to the Civil War by meeting with a Confederate delegation in February 1965, Lincoln would not relent on ending slavery. Lincoln was willing to avoid personal punishment for Confederate leaders.
The fiscal cliff negotiations have demonstrated a lack of transparency. As the Senate leadership and the White House reach agreement, it would be wise to recognize that this is the method of President Obama. Delays in working out a compromise led to last minute arm-twisting by Democrats to avoid the fiscal cliff. Obama often cites Lincoln, but will he follow his approach to managing our country or only his style?
The executive has the power to enforce the laws enacted by Congress. This does not mean the power to rewrite them through bureaucratic authority. Our Constitution was written by wiser men than now lead our nation. The framers placed limits upon the immense Presidential power that Lincoln used to wage civil war. Yet, Lincoln managed the war and redirected the domestic political scene. President Obama would benefit from understanding the limits to political power our framers intended. Rather than remake America, he might remake his administration and restore Constitutional democracy. He may be remembered as one who exercised imperial powers counter to the will of the people, as if they were his subjects.