Obama’s Legacy of Executive Overreach

“I take the Constitution very seriously,” President Obama told a crowd at a campaign rally in March 2008. “The biggest problems that we’re facing right now have to do with George Bush trying to bring more and more power into the executive branch and not go through Congress at all.”

And then came the promise: “And that is what I intend to reverse when I become president of the Unites States.”

Of course, it’s far from the only time that Mr. Obama decried the increasingly centralized power of the executive branch. He’s also promised not to do “an end-run around Congress.” He reminded people that, “I am a president, I am not a king. I can’t do these things just by myself.” He argued on behalf of checks and balances, telling an audience “that for me to simply, through executive order, ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president.” He recognized that the Constitution sometimes made it difficult, telling a group of students that “[c]hanging our laws means doing the hard work of changing minds and changing votes, one by one.” He admitted that it would be tough. “Believe me, the idea of doing things on my own is very tempting,” he said. “But,” he admitted, “that’s not how our system works. That’s not how our democracy functions. That’s not how our Constitution is written.” And even when it’s tough, it’s worth it, because as Obama reminded voters, “The great thing about this country is we have this wonderful process of democracy, and sometimes it is messy, and sometimes it is hard, but ultimately, justice and truth win out.”

Unfortunately, in the quest to build a legacy, President Obama seems to have forgotten these lofty statements. Most recently, this occurred in the form of an executive action to expand background checks to gun shows and online sales, add examiners to help process them, and he’s requiring states to share more mental health information with the federal background check system.

The problems with this approach are myriad. First, closing the so-called gun show loophole isn’t going to do much to improve safety. As S.E. Cupp reminds us in the New York Daily News, the Department of Justice found that less than 1 percent of the guns used in crimes were obtained at a gun show. And a study from the University of Maryland found “no evidence that gun shows lead to increases in either gun homicides or suicides” and that “tighter regulation of gun shows does not appear to reduce the number of firearms-related deaths.”

Second, the push for additional staff to perform background checks, isn’t a controversial issue. If anything, it reveals incompetence in the executive branch’s enforcement of the law, far more than it says anything about Congress, which has been pushing for additional funds.

And third, and perhaps most consequentially, the push for additional mental health data could have better been accomplished by passing legislation, namely, Republican Sen. John Cornyn’s “Mental Health and Safe Communities Act,” which incentivizes states to send more mental health records to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

The bigger problem here isn’t the substance of President Obama’s executive action. It is, for better, but probably worse, a largely ineffectual action that would not have stopped the recent mass shootings and is unlikely to prevent similar tragedies in the future. No, the bigger problem is the consistent creep of centralized executive authority by this administration. David Harsanyi writes for National Review:

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. . .

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.

That’s a dangerous precedent, one that begins to erode the foundations of the Constitution and sets us on a path toward autocracy. Regardless of who controls the White House in the future, centralizing its power, is something that should concern both parties, for it has no role in either a democratic or republican form of government.