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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Rank Your Favorite Presidential Tyrants!

With only hours to go until President Obama presents his executive order that will--unless he pulls a fast one on his Republican opponents--remove the threat of deportation from the lives of up to 5 million illegal residents of this country, the political and legal arguments are lining up. Sadly but predictably, the policy arguments, by contrast, are not. In terms of our overall immigration problem, this ordered action by the president will be fairly small potatoes; additional opportunities for many of the children of illegal immigrants--the "Dreamers" who benefited from Obama's previous executive order, the DACA program--but very likely nothing for their parents, nothing for undocumented itinerant farm workers, and no ACA benefits for anyone. But since the only bill which the Tea Party-spooked congressional Republican leadership has allowed to come forward for a vote ever since Senator Marc Rubio withdrew is own proposal is a ridiculous Dreamer-deportation non-starter, it seems reasonable to assume that the national Republican party will simply describe anything the president orders as "amnesty!" and prepare their government shutdown or defunding or impeachment proceedings.

But as everyone must surely recognize, that's exactly the point, right? The partisan dysfunctions of our federal government--which, I don't deny, President Obama makes every bit as much use of as anyone in Congress of either party--have presented the president, when it comes to immigration, with an opportunity that he considers to be both politically expedient (a correct conclusion, I'm sure) and within his legal prerogatives as chief executive (about which I am far less than certain). Smart pundits like Ross Douthat and Damon Linker have made I believe a pretty solid case claiming that while what the president is proposing may not necessarily explicitly contravene any legal rule on where the president's executive authority ends, it does appearing to be throwing the sort of "norms, precedents and judgment" that ought to guide "how things are done" by the chief executive in a presidential democracy out the window. Which, ultimately, just echoes what other conservative thinkers and rabble-rousers have been claiming for years: that Obama, as everyone knows, is a Constitution-flouting tyrant! (That's assuming, of course, that he ever had a legitimate claim to the office in the first place.)

Now realistically, if you actually drill down and examine the real history of the number and scope of presidents issuing Congress-circumventing executive orders over the years, Obama's record is far more ambiguous. But the heck with that! The die has been cast! Now those who have long been critical of this president really do have a genuinely credible basis accusing him of acting beyond the scope of his Constitutionally-delegated powers. So I say, this is as good a time as any: let's rate just how tyrannical President Obama really is! Below, I list my top five presidential tyrants. Let me know if you agree or disagree, or provide rankings of your own!

(Quick note: it should go without saying that my list should be taken for a grain of salt, for at least two reasons: one, because on the level of theory I actually don't care all that much for either our current system of government or even the principle of constitutionalism in general; and two, because I'm a fan of the War Powers Resolution, and thus basically believe every president that has denied it's controlling authority since it's passage--which is all of them--is acting like a tyrannical war-monger anyway. Also, note that I am just focusing on the past century here, thus leaving aside the always sticky issue of Lincoln's blatantly unconstitutional actions during the Civil War, and as well as the obvious clear winner of the tyrant sweepstakes, Andrew Jackson, the only president we've had who--you've got to give him credit for honesty!--just out and out told the Supreme Court, when it issued a decision he didn't like, to go screw themselves.)

#5: Barack Obama. Look, I'm not going to belabor this. Has this president found himself, for structural reasons mostly (if not entirely) beyond his control, dealing with congressional opposition that is unprecedented...or at least, unprecedented in this century? Yes, I think that's pretty clearly true. So I suppose you could say he's been forced into an abusive position in regards to his executive prerogatives. But that doesn't change the plain that what he's likely going to announce tonight is of a piece with his recess appointments, his targeted (and, shall we say, "extrajudicial") assassinations of both foreign nationals and even American citizens, and more. The man clearly takes presidential power to unconstitutional extremes. Though he hasn't done so as much as...

#4: Ronald Reagan. We remember Iran-Contra, yes? Specifically evading the Boland Amendment, so as to be able to continue to fund--though channels that were also illegal all on their own--a conflict that made use of American resources and advisers without Congressional approval? Not to mentioned the executive orders given by President Reagan which became the building blocks of the NSA's 4th-Amendment-circumventing data-collection activities (though is was executive orders from a later member of this list which through those into overdrive). Clearly, the man was a at least a little bit of a tyrant. Though honestly, probably not as much as...

#3: Lyndon Johnson. Not a lot to argue about here. It's well known that the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was obtained at least in part by President Johnson outright lying to the American people about what had transpired that August night off the coast of Vietnam. One can make all sorts of apologies of dishonesty, of course, especially when dealing with delicate matters of state--but this was a matter of war, and specifically whether to get into one or not, and I can't think of any situation which mandates greater honesty on the part of elected leaders than that. But still, if you're willing to forgive his lying to get us deeper into Vietnam (and his ordering of the CIA to disrupt student protest movements across the country), then clearly you're probably willing to forgive the tyrannical actions of...

#2: George W. Bush. First of all, there was his rampant abuse of signing statements to shape the enforcement and implementation of laws before they even technically fell under his jurisdiction as chief executive, essentially giving himself the unconstitutional power of a line-item (this is one of the--unfortunately too-few--bad precedents set by Bush which President Obama, to his credit, has not followed). Then there was his expansion of the NSA's authority to engage in the widespread surveillance of American citizens without obtaining a warrant, and then of course everything associated with the Iraq War: the military tribunals, the summary arrest and denial of habeas corpus and basic due process to anyone suspected of terrorism, and, most of all, the knowing presentation of false or at least incomplete information--in other words, lying--while making a case for war (though he never actually sought Congress's permission, as arguably Johnson did; only their approval). All in all, that makes George W. Bush about a Caesarish as modern presidents can get. Or would, if it wasn't for...

#1: Richard Nixon. Not infrequently, I run across people and writings that, for any number of reasons--pure contrarianism, a particular kind of Republican revisionism, a stylized kind of anti-democratic "realism" that likes to self-consciously prioritize policy accomplishments over political legitimacy, etc.--present Richard Nixon as a great president, or at least an unfairly misunderstood one. Please, people. You're not losing any hipster cred or letting down your chosen political party or selling out to the Baby Boomers to recognize that Nixon was, in addition to an admittedly smart and effective president in many ways, a crook. And not just some sort of tragic figure who finds himself constitutionally trapped and thus embraces a crooked defiance (that might arguably apply to Obama), but no: an actual, real, Constitution-violating nogoodnik. He aided and abetted in the commission of felonies: breaking and entering, theft, intimidation, bribery, and more. He was a liar, and--given his actions during the 1968 peace talks--arguably a traitor to his country. All that, and the man wanted to turn White House Secret Service officers into his own palace guard, complete with snappy uniforms. If Obama's expansions of presidential power ever get anywhere near to any of that, do give me a call.


Anonymous said...

I was going to write a response pointing out a few things such as that your claim that Obama does not use signing statements is entirely wrong (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obama-circumvents-laws-with-signing-statements-a-tool-he-promised-to-use-lightly/2014/06/02/9d76d46a-ea73-11e3-9f5c-9075d5508f0a_story.html), and that someone devoted to political science shouldn't really be so flippant about these matters, but then upon re-reading I noticed your open admissions that you "actually don't care all that much for either our current system of government or even the principle of constitutionalism in general" (Why the repeated complaints about something being unconstitutional then? Methinks you doth protest too much), so why bother?

Russell Arben Fox said...


Thanks for the link to the Washington Post article; that does show that Obama's tyrannical tendencies are, unfortunately, not much better than his predecessor's (though his use of drone warfare and his moves in Syria make that pretty clear all on their own). As for my admissions, I think I've made them pretty clear over the years: while we don't have anywhere near an actually bad system of government, a much more federalized and parliamentary-style democracy would serve our country far better than the presidential constitutional democracy which we currently have (and that, if we're honest, exists in name only). As for my philosophical complaints with constitutionalism, what can I say? I much more sympathetic to radical democracy and even popular majoritarianism, at least in theory. Then why bother talking about presidential tyrants at all? Because other people talk that way, and responding in kind gets readers--like you--thinking, which is something I enjoy reading the fruits of.