Obama's Legacy of Overreach

The liberal media is beginning to talk about Obama’s legacy – a sure sign that he doesn’t have one.  What he does have is a negative legacy – a record of unconstitutional overreach that matches or exceeds that of any president before him.  History has not been kind to presidents who overstep the bounds of authority, and it will not be kind to Obama.

This administration is not the first to have overreached.  Early in his first term, FDR set up the NRA (National Recovery Administration), the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and other agencies with the mandate of regulating the national economy, including comprehensive regulation of prices and wages.  These actions were struck down by the Supreme Court in one case after another.  In response, in 1937 Roosevelt attempted to pack the Supreme Court with additional judges, an outrageous overreach that was also rebuffed by Congress and by the American people.  FDR’s reputation was tarnished, though not entirely spoiled.

But no president so much resembles Obama as Woodrow Wilson.  Like Obama, Wilson was personally cold, arrogant, and remote.  Wilson was also imperious in his dealings with Congress, once proclaiming that if Congress opposed his decision on the League of Nations provision of the Versailles Treaty, they would have to shut up and “take their medicine” (Patterson et al, American Foreign Policy, 3rd ed., vol. 2, p. 28).  Like Obama, Wilson had negotiated the details of the Versailles Treaty in secrecy, and he refused to share them with members of Congress even after returning from the negotiations.  Congress acted wisely in refusing to ratify the treaty, which, as finally presented, included in Article X the stipulation that obligated the United States to deploy forces to defend all other members of the League, even without the approval of Congress.

Again and again, Wilson attempted to bypass Congress, acting as if he were the “personal instrument of God.”  Those are not my words – they are Wilson’s (Edwin A. Weinstein, Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography, 316).  Obama displays the same unwillingness to compromise or even to talk with opponents, along with the same narcissistic self-assurance.  

When the GOP majority in the Senate balked at Article X and other details of the Versailles Treaty (which Wilson had negotiated without input from the leaders of either party), Wilson set off on a nationwide speaking tour in order to sway public opinion.  The similarity to Obama’s handling of the Iran treaty is striking.  Expect Obama to take the issue to the public if and when the Senate balks at the details of his disastrous giveaway. 

At the end of his second term, Woodrow Wilson left office in disgrace, his League of Nations proposal rejected, the economy sinking into a deep recession, and relations with Congress literally nonexistent.  When he died just after the landslide election of his Republican successor, Wilson’s Democratic vice president was so fearful of public opinion that he refused to be sworn in.  The country drifted for months without a president in office (and none the worse for it).  The Republicans who succeeded Wilson, Harding and Coolidge, went on to become two of America’s most popular presidents, enjoying overwhelming support during their eight years in office.  By 1928, the Wilson years were, for most Americans, a painful memory of war, inflation, and presidential overreach.

There are signs that Obama’s legacy won’t be very different.  Far from gaining support, his FY2016 budget proposal was such an exercise in fantasy that it was not even discussed by the press.  No one, even among those in his own party, stepped forward to support it.  It arrived on Capitol Hill like an unwelcome fruitcake, tossed out before it was even sampled.  

Obama’s Iran treaty may well be the centerpiece of his second term, and like Wilson’s League proposal, it is likely to fail.  Either it will not be ratified by the Senate, or it will be approved in some revised form that will nonetheless be disastrous to the future of the Middle East.  Either way, it won’t serve Obama’s legacy.

When one looks at photographs of Wilson late in his second term, one sees a haggard, stiff-necked, antagonistic old man.  Even at the nadir of his presidency, Wilson remained haughty and overconfident, closer to a dictator than anything we have seen in this country before or since.  And he was not just arrogant – he was delusional.  Communicating only through his wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, he let it be known that he would accept the nomination for an unprecedented third term and sat up during his party’s convention, waiting for his orders to be carried out.  When the 1920 convention nominated James M. Cox instead, and Cox was defeated, Wilson assumed that he, Wilson, would be the candidate in 1924.  Let us hope that Obama is not quite that delusional.

Like Wilson, Obama has become increasingly inflexible in his second term, especially since the congressional election of 2014.  That election was a mandate for the GOP, but Obama seems to regard it as giving him free rein to govern by executive order.  This overreach is a serious miscalculation, and one that will damage his party for decades to come.  The American people are tired of Obama’s dictatorial exercise of power, and they yearn for a leader who will act in an open and forthright manner, and who will respect the constitutional limits of his office.  That sounds more like Scott Walker than Hillary Clinton.

Obama has spoiled it for his party in 2016 and probably for a decade to come.  The public’s image of Woodrow Wilson after he left office was that of a priggish, imperious autocrat, utterly incapable of compromise or even discussion.  After Wilson left office, his progressive vision of an all-powerful executive was overturned.  While the IRS, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Reserve Bank – Wilson’s gifts to the American people – remained in place, government expansion was slowed and spending curtailed.  Most of all, Wilson was remembered as a disagreeable leader who made enemies wherever he went.  He seemed to be constitutionally incapable of working with others. 

Barack Obama’s legacy won’t be far off.  Of course, the liberal media will go into overdrive polishing his image and touting his grand “accomplishments.”  But what would those be?  Obamacare and an economy still operating at negative growth rates?  An Iran treaty that puts the survival of Israel and of the United States at risk?  A war on coal, regulatory overkill of the energy sector, and climate change proposals for 2025 that would shut down one quarter of the economy?  For most Americans, the Obama years will be an ugly memory – years when government regulated every sector of the economy, and the public suffered for it.

The years to come may well resemble the Roaring Twenties that followed Wilson’s misguided presidency – the greatest expansion of free markets and prosperity in our nation’s history.  The Obama presidency is already something that most of us would like to forget.  His legacy is nothing less than the failed overreach of an arrogant and delusional autocrat.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books on American politics and culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

The liberal media is beginning to talk about Obama’s legacy – a sure sign that he doesn’t have one.  What he does have is a negative legacy – a record of unconstitutional overreach that matches or exceeds that of any president before him.  History has not been kind to presidents who overstep the bounds of authority, and it will not be kind to Obama.

This administration is not the first to have overreached.  Early in his first term, FDR set up the NRA (National Recovery Administration), the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and other agencies with the mandate of regulating the national economy, including comprehensive regulation of prices and wages.  These actions were struck down by the Supreme Court in one case after another.  In response, in 1937 Roosevelt attempted to pack the Supreme Court with additional judges, an outrageous overreach that was also rebuffed by Congress and by the American people.  FDR’s reputation was tarnished, though not entirely spoiled.

But no president so much resembles Obama as Woodrow Wilson.  Like Obama, Wilson was personally cold, arrogant, and remote.  Wilson was also imperious in his dealings with Congress, once proclaiming that if Congress opposed his decision on the League of Nations provision of the Versailles Treaty, they would have to shut up and “take their medicine” (Patterson et al, American Foreign Policy, 3rd ed., vol. 2, p. 28).  Like Obama, Wilson had negotiated the details of the Versailles Treaty in secrecy, and he refused to share them with members of Congress even after returning from the negotiations.  Congress acted wisely in refusing to ratify the treaty, which, as finally presented, included in Article X the stipulation that obligated the United States to deploy forces to defend all other members of the League, even without the approval of Congress.

Again and again, Wilson attempted to bypass Congress, acting as if he were the “personal instrument of God.”  Those are not my words – they are Wilson’s (Edwin A. Weinstein, Woodrow Wilson: A Medical and Psychological Biography, 316).  Obama displays the same unwillingness to compromise or even to talk with opponents, along with the same narcissistic self-assurance.  

When the GOP majority in the Senate balked at Article X and other details of the Versailles Treaty (which Wilson had negotiated without input from the leaders of either party), Wilson set off on a nationwide speaking tour in order to sway public opinion.  The similarity to Obama’s handling of the Iran treaty is striking.  Expect Obama to take the issue to the public if and when the Senate balks at the details of his disastrous giveaway. 

At the end of his second term, Woodrow Wilson left office in disgrace, his League of Nations proposal rejected, the economy sinking into a deep recession, and relations with Congress literally nonexistent.  When he died just after the landslide election of his Republican successor, Wilson’s Democratic vice president was so fearful of public opinion that he refused to be sworn in.  The country drifted for months without a president in office (and none the worse for it).  The Republicans who succeeded Wilson, Harding and Coolidge, went on to become two of America’s most popular presidents, enjoying overwhelming support during their eight years in office.  By 1928, the Wilson years were, for most Americans, a painful memory of war, inflation, and presidential overreach.

There are signs that Obama’s legacy won’t be very different.  Far from gaining support, his FY2016 budget proposal was such an exercise in fantasy that it was not even discussed by the press.  No one, even among those in his own party, stepped forward to support it.  It arrived on Capitol Hill like an unwelcome fruitcake, tossed out before it was even sampled.  

Obama’s Iran treaty may well be the centerpiece of his second term, and like Wilson’s League proposal, it is likely to fail.  Either it will not be ratified by the Senate, or it will be approved in some revised form that will nonetheless be disastrous to the future of the Middle East.  Either way, it won’t serve Obama’s legacy.

When one looks at photographs of Wilson late in his second term, one sees a haggard, stiff-necked, antagonistic old man.  Even at the nadir of his presidency, Wilson remained haughty and overconfident, closer to a dictator than anything we have seen in this country before or since.  And he was not just arrogant – he was delusional.  Communicating only through his wife, Edith Bolling Galt Wilson, he let it be known that he would accept the nomination for an unprecedented third term and sat up during his party’s convention, waiting for his orders to be carried out.  When the 1920 convention nominated James M. Cox instead, and Cox was defeated, Wilson assumed that he, Wilson, would be the candidate in 1924.  Let us hope that Obama is not quite that delusional.

Like Wilson, Obama has become increasingly inflexible in his second term, especially since the congressional election of 2014.  That election was a mandate for the GOP, but Obama seems to regard it as giving him free rein to govern by executive order.  This overreach is a serious miscalculation, and one that will damage his party for decades to come.  The American people are tired of Obama’s dictatorial exercise of power, and they yearn for a leader who will act in an open and forthright manner, and who will respect the constitutional limits of his office.  That sounds more like Scott Walker than Hillary Clinton.

Obama has spoiled it for his party in 2016 and probably for a decade to come.  The public’s image of Woodrow Wilson after he left office was that of a priggish, imperious autocrat, utterly incapable of compromise or even discussion.  After Wilson left office, his progressive vision of an all-powerful executive was overturned.  While the IRS, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Federal Reserve Bank – Wilson’s gifts to the American people – remained in place, government expansion was slowed and spending curtailed.  Most of all, Wilson was remembered as a disagreeable leader who made enemies wherever he went.  He seemed to be constitutionally incapable of working with others. 

Barack Obama’s legacy won’t be far off.  Of course, the liberal media will go into overdrive polishing his image and touting his grand “accomplishments.”  But what would those be?  Obamacare and an economy still operating at negative growth rates?  An Iran treaty that puts the survival of Israel and of the United States at risk?  A war on coal, regulatory overkill of the energy sector, and climate change proposals for 2025 that would shut down one quarter of the economy?  For most Americans, the Obama years will be an ugly memory – years when government regulated every sector of the economy, and the public suffered for it.

The years to come may well resemble the Roaring Twenties that followed Wilson’s misguided presidency – the greatest expansion of free markets and prosperity in our nation’s history.  The Obama presidency is already something that most of us would like to forget.  His legacy is nothing less than the failed overreach of an arrogant and delusional autocrat.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books on American politics and culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).