Checks and Imbalances

Mar 26, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Though he's barely finished a quarter of it, the media are already deeming President Obama's first term a failure. It's a wonder he continues to get out of bed in the morning. Conventional wisdom, across both liberal and conservative punditry, faults his Administration for Americans' anger and dissatisfaction with all of Washington. In particular, Obama has alienated those all-important uber-citizens, the Independents. The issue, the chattering class explains, is the fact that President Obama is out of touch with the problems of real Americans, and the people are disenchanted with him.

Critics on the right have devoted hours of airtime and rivers of ink documenting Obama's demise and eulogizing his presidency. He's arrogant, they claim, and too egg-headed. He's growing government in a way that makes average Americans uncomfortable. He's an off-his-rocker liberal who refuses to listen to voters. He's a victim of his own hubris, engaging in faux populism to save an ideology. He's on TV too much, AND he reads a teleprompter. He should throw out his entire agenda in favor of something less sweeping, and lacking in transformational quality.

Critics on the left view Obama's first year differently, but no more charitably. He's too diffident. He's not fighting hard enough for his agenda. He gave Congress too much control over the writing of legislation. He's not ambitious enough with his spending or his policy proposals. He's too bipartisan, and too willing to compromise. He failed to deliver on the change he promised during the 2008 campaign. And by the way, where is all that hope? One erudite liberal columnist is so despondent, he's "pretty close to giving up" on the first-term president.

I have two reactions to this festival of criticism. The first is that it comes as no surprise. Republicans pull no punches when dealing with a Democratic president, and there are no depths to which they will not sink. And Democrats have always been prone to Cassandra-like hand-wringing at the slightest dark omen.

Taking a step back, though, it strikes me that our government is working exactly as it was intended. Folks, this is the Madisonian Model we're all so proud of when we talk about the intent of the Founders. We should think about what the Constitution empowers the Executive to do, and adjust our expectations of Barack Obama accordingly. Article II, which spells out the powers of the Executive Branch, is specifically unspecific. It is crafted to ensure that no Chief Executive can act unilaterally, or move too quickly to change the course of the country. The Founders, remember, weren't too fond of heads of state - they worried that a powerful executive would be too much like a monarch. So they conferred upon the office of president title and status, but mandated that any decision of import be rendered in concert with Congress. So, no, Barack Obama isn't magic, and the system, which is designed to make change difficult and slow, is working exactly as planned. As frustrating as that may be to those who expected overnight results and instant gratification.

In contrast, the Supreme Court this week ushered in a quiet revolution, completely unfettered by pesky public opinion polls or reelection concerns. The five conservative justices, who consider themselves "originalists" and "strict constructionists", flouted the meaning and the spirit of the Constitution in granting First Amendment protections to corporations. In his famous The Federalist No. 10, Madison clearly conceded that special interests posed a problem to democracy. But in a large republic, he countered, there would be so many factional parties competing for influence, that no one group could overpower another. However, this week, the Court wiped out a century of precedent, shifting the landscape of politics away from fights between political parties, and toward the ominous reality of corporate-sponsored and controlled candidates.

The decision has confused hard-core partisans. Republicans feel it favors them, especially since most liberals are reacting with horror. And, in the traditional world of politics, where Big Business backs Republican candidates, it does. However, corporate interests know no allegiance to a particular ideology. They are singularly devoted to profits. Exploitation of populist resentment of the moneyed, the educated, and the powerful will no longer suffice to win elections. Neither will the bi-annual trotting out of wedge issues like gay marriage and abortion. Elections, instead, will become cash-infused shouting matches between competing corporate interests. Candidates will simply be mouthpieces, beholden to sponsors whose money they have accepted in exchange for positions of power. It won't matter whether government is big or small, because it will no longer be government of the people, by the people and for the people.

In effect, the Supreme Court altered the Constitution so that the venerable preamble now might as well read, "We the Corporations of the United States, in order to maximize profits, establish hegemony, insure a large GDP, provide for the common defense of our interests, promote the general welfare of our shareholders, and secure the blessings of wealth to ourselves and our investors, do hereby ordain and establish our complete control over the United States of America."

In this context, the actions of these five justices have so swiftly and lastingly altered the political system of the United States, that the actions of one lowly Chief Executive hardly matter at all.