George Will: Unfortunate SOTU metaphors and the "unfettered executive"

George Will: Unfortunate SOTU metaphors and the "unfettered executive"


Will no one rid me of these meddlesome legislators?

When George Will is not wasting his WaPo column singing praises for the latest long-shot GOP candidate in the media spotlight, he can lyrically voice the truth of a matter like few other pundits. His latest column is a pitch perfect observation on how President Obama’s State of the Union address betrays a longing for an “unfettered executive” branch by his administration and among his supporters:

“Obama, an unfettered executive wielding a swollen state, began and ended his address by celebrating the armed forces. They are not “consumed with personal ambition,” they “work together” and “focus on the mission at hand” and do not “obsess over their differences.” Americans should emulate troops “marching into battle,” who “rise or fall as one unit.

Well. The armed services’ ethos, although noble, is not a template for civilian society, unless the aspiration is to extinguish politics. People marching in serried ranks, fused into a solid mass by the heat of martial ardor, proceeding in lock step, shoulder to shoulder, obedient to orders from a commanding officer — this is a recurring dream of progressives eager to dispense with tiresome persuasion and untidy dissension in a free, tumultuous society…

To enact and execute federal laws under Madison’s institutional architecture requires three, and sometimes more, such majorities. There must be majorities in the House and Senate, each body having distinctive constituencies and electoral rhythms. The law must be affirmed by the president, who has a distinctive electoral base and election schedule. Supermajorities in both houses of Congress are required to override presidential vetoes. And a Supreme Court majority is required to sustain laws against constitutional challenges…

Like other progressive presidents fond of military metaphors, he rejects the patience of politics required by the Constitution he has sworn to uphold.”

Will’s column is not without false notes.  He implies by omission that the desire for an unfettered executive branch is unique to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.  Not so. The executive privilege, unitary executive definition and war power assertions of the Bush/Cheney Presidency is still fresh in my mind, even if forgotten or minimized by Mr. Will. The single greatest disappointment of the Obama Presidency has been his willingness to use the Bush/Cheney Unitary Executive definition as a jumping off point to further expand the power of the presidency.

This appetite for expanded executive authority is also clearly evident in all of the current batch of Republican Presidential hopefuls save Ron Paul.  None more so than “Big Government Conservative” Newt Gingrich,  who would also like to remove any judicial constraints on both the executive and legislative branch. I am not sure which is more frightening…

New Gingrich claiming authority to disregard or dismantle the judicial branch:

“I decided that if you had judges that were so radically anti-American that they thought ‘one nation under God’ was wrong, they shouldn’t be on the court.”

– or –

President Obama dismissing the joint session of congress in his SOTU address:  with “You won’t act, so I am.”  

Both sentiments represent a depressing prospect for all but closet monarchists.

Today, the Republican House of Representatives, divided government, and the Supreme Court are the only meaningful constraints on the Democratic executive branch. This election cycle the GOP is likely to maintain their majority in the House and take majority control of the Senate. Senate control will add one more fetter to a Democratic president but, if recent history is a guide, will put no additional limitation on the power of a Republican president. This should give pause to George Will and anyone else who purports to care about Madisonian democracy and the checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution.

There is a real risk that we will return to One Party Rule under the Republicans in 2013. If that still looks likely in the fall, I would hope that anyone as concerned about executive branch overreach as George Will would endorse the re-election of Barack Obama. At least this would prevent loosening the remaining tenuous legislative fetters still constraining the expanding executive branch beast.

While ever hopeful, I will not be holding my breath.

Cross-posted from The Dividist Papers

  • Shane


    Well observed.

    George Will has taken modern conservatives to task as well in the past. While not noted in this column, he has made similar arguments against the power grab of the previous president….

  • mw

    Good links. Thanks. I guess I knew that Will had also taken the Bush administration to task for pushing the envelope with potentially extra-Constitutional exercise of power.

    In fact, you prompted me to search my own blog and I found an example that I noted in a 2006 blog post on disgruntled conservatives:

    And then listening to George Will, conservative commentator, who said, “It is not perverse to wonder whether the spectacle of America, currently learning a lesson – one that conservatives should not have to learn on the job – about the limits of power to subdue an unruly world, has emboldened many enemies.”

    Based on the continuing sabre-rattling in the GOP debates on the subject of Afghanistan, Iraq, and most stridently – Iran, it appears that most of the GOP candidates have still not learned the lessons of the limits of power that Will warned about in 2006. Another reason to avoid giving them all the keys in 2012.

  • Jeremy Young

    It would be utterly hypocritical for any conservative to point out the Napoleonic nature of the Obama administration, when one only looks backward at the previous administration. One of the most unilateral, “unfettered” administration in the history of presidency. The Bush administration very much taking on characteristics of Andrew Jackson’s administration with contempt for the legislative branch and any other branch for that matter. The Bush presidency was on the most recalcitrant extra-constitutional administrations of the modern presidency. So I have to laugh a bit when I hear these rich boys try to fit round Obama through a square hole. The Bush administration makes Obama look like a team player when you look at the crap that was going on behind the closed doors of one of the most secretive presidency in recent memory. Anyone up for some illegal domestic wiretaps or perhaps some water boarding at an Egyptian vacation resort or perhaps an extended stay at the 5 star Gitmo. Please, do us a favor and don’t mention the Obama administration’s unilateral tendencies when the master of unilateral action is not even a full administration behind us.

  • mdgeorge

    I think that reading those passages of the SOTU as expressing a desire for an “unfettered executive” is completely wrong, and I think it obscures the important point, which is that holding an elected office is intended to be public service, not an opportunity to exercise power for personal or party gain. I think it is absolutely appropriate to call the Congress out on that, because I think we as a nation and particularly our current batch of legislators have completely forgotten that. I also think the the military is a perfect example of that, because they do a great job of treating their service as, well, service.

    That said, I think the points that the executive branch has become far too powerful and that President Obama has not done anything to help in this area are spot on. Although I agree with Jeremy that a lot of the excesses started under President Bush, President Obama has continued most of these policies, and has used some of these powers in excess of the Bush administration. He’s been less grotesque about it – not condoning torture, for example – but I’ve found his use of surveillance techniques, prosecution of leaks, and support for assassination troubling.

    Finally, maybe I live in a partisan bubble, but I find the prospect of a one-party republican government next year very unlikely, although I look forward to seeing mw supporting a democrat, since until now I’ve only seen him speak as a partisan republican despite his insistence that he’s a dividian.

  • khaki

    @Jeremy, “It would be utterly hypocritical …. when one only looks backward at the previous administration.”

    Jeremy, the last republican president was Reagan. There was no previous administration. Haven’t you been paying attention? Sheesh.

  • mw

    “I look forward to seeing mw supporting a democrat, since until now I’ve only seen him speak as a partisan republican despite his insistence that he’s a dividian.” MD George

    A couple things – First, I’ve dropped “Dividian” in favor of “Dividist®” , which I invented and registered as a trademark. Please feel free to use my word. The normal rate is $1 per non-commercial use, however I will extend a 50% discount to my friends on the Donk. Please keep track of your usage and send me a royalty check monthly.

    I have already “declared” more or less for Obama’s re-election on my blog, but have not yet been quite so explicit here. I want to do a series of posts with my 2012 prognostications for the House, Senate and Prez which outlines the rationale to support Obama to maintain divided government. SPOILER ALERT: The Republicans have a lock on the House, The Senate is a toss-up and could wind up 50-50 or 51-49 either way. That only leaves voting for Obama to be sure the government stays divided. Your mileage may vary.

    The real tragedy of Obama’s acquiescence and extension of virtually all of the Bush/Cheney executive power grab, is that it stamps an imprimatur of bipartisan validation on the NEW IMPROVED IMPERIAL PRESIDENCY.

    The Bush/Cheney executive overreach could and should have been pulled back by Obama as he promised to do in the campaign. The real hypocrisy will come with the frightening prospect of a Republican President, potentially with a Republican Congress wielding the expanded executive powers forged in these two administrations, and the squeals of protest from liberal Democrats who are silent about Obama’s use of these powers today.

  • mdgeorge

    as an aside, md are my initials…I’m not a doctor (soon to be a PhD though!)

  • mw

    We’ll call it an honorarium then – In anticipation of your successful dissertation.

  • cranky critter

    I think it’s comical to say “imperial presidency” when congress has SO much more power.

  • Shane

    “I think it’s comical to say “imperial presidency” when congress has SO much more power.”

    As a group, they are very powerful, but a single congressman isn’t a concern. You are comparing the power of one branch dispersed over 535 separately elected officials to a branch with 1 elected official wielding all the power including appointing nearly all of the positions below him/her. And as we discovered with Bush and now with Obama, the office of the president has continued to expand powers beyond what was intended and beyond what is healthy- a problem Obama told us about often in 2008.