This Presidents’ Day, ask a middle school student to explain the job of the American president.
Most likely, he or she will answer — incorrectly — that the president “makes our laws.” But, of course, the president does not make laws. Our Constitution reserves that role for Congress. A technicality this is not.
Let’s review: The Constitution creates our government. Without it, our government has no authority and no legitimacy. The Constitution establishes three co-equal branches: the legislative branch (Congress) makes the laws; the executive branch (president) executes, or enforces, the laws; and the judicial branch interprets them.
While Article I grants a variety of powers to Congress, including the power to tax, regulate commerce, create uniform rules for immigration and naturalization, establish federal courts, and declare war, Article II’s delegation of presidential power is more limited.
The president is the commander in chief of the armed forces. He has the power, with the advice and consent of the Senate, to make treaties and to nominate judges and other U.S. office-holders. But, although he can “recommend” to Congress measures he deems “necessary and expedient,” or veto legislation that Congress sends him, a president cannot force Congress to act.
This separation of powers is the heart of our Constitution.As John Adams once noted, it creates a government of laws and not men. And it limits majority rule to protect the rights of those with less power.
Think adults understand these basic concepts any better than our middle schoolers? Think again.
According to a 2006 Zogby poll, 75 percent of American adults can name the Three Stooges, but only 42 percent can name the three branches of government. In a 2012 Xavier University study, 85 percent of respondents (all native-born American citizens) did not know the meaning of the term “rule of law.” What’s more, sizable majorities could not identify the Constitution as the supreme law of the land, name a single power of the federal government, or explain the role of the judiciary.
This profound ignorance of basic constitutional principles has important implications. To begin with, it has allowed the current administration to ignore the separation of powers and to adopt an “ends justify the means” type of politics.
President Obama, thus, embroils American troops in Libya’s civil war without a formal declaration of war from Congress. Rather than wait for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, he simply stops enforcing current law. When Congress, under its advice and consent power, does not confirm Obama’s appointments, he installs them anyway. And if Congress won’t pass his vision of gun-control legislation, the president threatens to enact it by executive order.
Rhetorically, Obama justifies this behavior on the grounds that Congress is being “obstructionist” and that the American people “can’t wait.” But wait we must.
Constitutional government, by its nature, moves slowly. It is meant to be deliberative, to encourage compromise and protect those with minority viewpoints from the passions of the mob. In this sense, gridlock is good. It’s a constitutional insurance policy put in place deliberately by our founders.
Today, we hear little complaint about presidential over-reach for the simple reason that the media agree with most of this president’s policies. But liberals would be wise to remember that Democrats won’t always hold the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Process matters — regardless of which party holds power. So this Presidents’ Day, let’s take time to reread our Constitution and to remind ourselves, and our children, exactly what it is that presidents are supposed to do — and, perhaps, as importantly, what they are not.