Obama Versus the Separation of Powers

One virtue possessed by all bad presidents, whether they’re evil, venal, lazy, or incompetent, is that they always reveal the weakness of the political system at the time of their tenure. In this, Obama is no different than any other bozo that has inhabited the White House.

Separation of powers is the one element that distinguishes the United States from previous democratic systems. (And before people hurt themselves in their rush to point out that “the U.S. is a republic and not a democracy” -- a “republic” is any governmental system that’s not a monarchy. Nazi Germany and the USSR were “republics.” The U.S. is a republic utilizing a system of representative democracy.)

The French political thinker Montesquieu was the author of De l’esprit des loix (The Spirit of the Laws), a book from the same shelf as The Wealth of Nations and The Influence of Sea Power on History, as being  massively influential though generally unread. In this, one of the first works of serious political science, Montesquieu made three major arguments -- the one that concerns us here involves separation of powers.


Book XI, chapter 6, the most famous of the entire book -- had lain in his drawers, save for revision or correction, since it was penned in 1734. It at once became perhaps the most important piece of political writing of the 18th century.

Montesquieu’s understand of history informed him that concentration of power leads inevitably to despotism -- no matter how solidly a democratic system was founded, eventually an Augustus or a Lorenzo would show up, concentrate all power in his own person and eventually undermine senate or council. From that point on, whatever it might call itself, the state was a simple autocracy. There was never a way back, and the usual sequel was degeneration and collapse.

Montesquieu’s solution was separation of powers:

Dividing political authority into the legislative, executive, and judicial powers, he asserted that, in the state that most effectively promotes liberty, these three powers must be confided to different individuals or bodies, acting independently.

Montesquieu’s thinking proved critical both in the UK’s liberalizing constitutional monarchy and, more to the point, the infant American republic. The Founders carried out the the first experiment in true separation of powers, interwoven with a system of checks and balances, with the powers and limitations of each branch carefully delineated (a major reason why Gouverneur Morris, who had the clearest legal style, was chosen to write the Constitution).

The final touch was given by Chief Justice John Marshall in Marbury v. Madison, which established the principle of judicial review by the Supreme Court.

This political format has served us well -- it has been abrogated rarely, the most infamous incident being Andrew Jackson’s response to the Worcester v. Georgia decision, in which Court found that the Cherokee tribe was an independent nation not subject to orders from the U.S.:  “John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it.” Jackson defied the Court and the Cherokees marched west. Nobody since has ever appealed to Old Hickory.

Though often criticized -- largely by progressives who knew what had to be done and wanted what amounted to a temporary dictatorship to do it -- separation of powers has been a great success. At no point, even during the Civil War, has the United States ever been in danger of the deterioration into autocracy that plagued previous republics. But as the Obama administration has clearly revealed, separation of powers has been crippled for the better part of a century through the metastasis of the executive branch.

The source of this lies in the aforementioned progressives, in the person of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The explosion of agencies under the New Deal, each of which was touted as necessary for the salvation of the country and most of which accomplished absolutely nothing, introduced a factor unforeseen by the Founders: concentration of power in the executive through organizational hyperdevelopment. All those agencies are under direct presidential control, and subject to his orders with no effective oversight from the other branches. Fortunately, FDR had no despotic tendencies and was not tempted to abuse his power (that was left to Harry Hopkins). Not so several of his successors.

Progressive agency creation has an inherent ratchet effect: once created, no agency could ever be dissolved. Agency creation after WW II was a byproduct of the progressive effort to control the postwar world, which culminated in Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” of the 1960s.

To keep a neverending story short, this is how, eighty years later, we’ve attained our current state of a government overburdened with agencies that solve nothing while constantly spinning off sub-organizations.

This has badly skewed the balance of powers toward the executive, something that Obama has been quick to seize on in his effort at permanent transformation of the American system.

No president has more abused the power of the executive. Obama was raised in Indonesia during key formative years, a nation that in the 1960s was run as a strict military autocracy. At the time that Obama was attending school there, the state’s founder Achmed Sukarno had just been overthrown by Gen. Mohammed Suharto. Accompanying this transfer of power had been a nationwide purge that murdered at least 100,000. (The government shrugged the victims off as communists, but it was a lot more complicated than that). Afterward, Suharto merrily set about becoming what a number of sources state to be “the most corrupt leader in history,” stealing over $30 billion while his family accounted for another $4 or 5 billion. During the same period he sanctioned further massacres in East Timor and West Irian.

This is the environment in which Obama’s consciousness of the world emerged, while sitting in a classroom presided over by a portrait of Suharto in his black songkok. It’s from here, rather than any later encounter with Alinsky or Ayers, that he gets his idea of government. While his left-wing pals may have poured in the ideology, the jug had been shaped for some time. In the privacy of his head, Obama is not a president at all -- he’s a pemimpin, the Indonesian term for führer. (This can also be seen in his constant vacations, golf rounds, etc. The Indonesian rulers got their idea of a leader’s lifestyle from the sultans. Obama picked that up too.)

One of the major techniques he learned is rule by decree -- to give orders without any effort at gaining consensus. How does he get away with it? In large part because he controls the agencies. Obama has discovered that the bloated hypertrophy of the bureaucracy has effectively put him beyond the reach of our system’s constitutional safeguards.

His decrees range from the idiotic to the grotesque -- his order to the EPA to shut down the coal industry, the repurposing of NASA as a Muslim PR effort, the post-legislative changes to ObamaCare (the most recent requiring full coverage for sex-change operations), and perhaps the most egregious, his gift of one and a half trillion dollars to his pals in the financial industry. If any GOP president had done such a thing, he’d have been dropped on a desert island to chat with a volleyball for the rest of his life. With Obama, it goes utterly unnoticed.

It’s long been understood that agencies such as the EPA, the Department of Education, and the Department of Energy are useless. It’s now clear that they are a threat to the commonwealth. A loaded pistol pointed at the American Republic, awaiting the next moron… or worse.

Obama, in his inept way, has set the pattern, and created a sense of wild surmise in the minds of every potential Nero in this country.

The Democrats ought to be the most concerned. But they typically behave as if they’re going to be in office forever (an old fantasy on their part that didn’t begin with James Carville). So they create these structures, these methods of short-circuiting the political process, and are shocked -- shocked -- when somebody else takes advantage of them. (e.g., Joe McCarthy imitating Harry Hopkins’s tactics.)

Agency abuse well be self-limiting in that the liberal elite will have a sudden change of mind as soon as the GOP seizes on it. Then it’ll suddenly become taboo. Then we’ll hear all sorts of Montesquieuan rhetoric, accompanied by a flurry of laws and proposals.

But the idea of depending on a liberal reaction is nightmarish in and of itself. One of the worst elements of this development is how, amid all the debate and crosstalk concerning Obama and his methods, this has gone almost completely unmentioned. (I say “almost” solely because I haven’t read every last comment on Obama -- in truth, I haven’t seen it mentioned at all.) The real problem here is that the progressives -- and possibly a much larger segment of the country -- have simply forgotten how the American system is supposed to work. And that may well be the most lethal aspect of all.