Belding: This November we elect a president, not a king


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Opinion: Belding 10/16

Michael Belding

It is customary for presidential campaigns to express their opinion of the current administration and the incumbent’s challenger(s). For President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney, this year is no different.

One piece linked to by NPR this summer, from The Weekly Standard, criticized Obama in an interesting way. “President Obama,” the opinion piece asserted, “has an accountability problem. It’s not simply that during the 2008 campaign he made extravagant promises to heal the planet, slow the rise of the oceans, end political divisions in America and usher in an era of hope and change, it’s that as a candidate and in the early days of his presidency, Obama and his top aides made a series of very specific promises on a range of issues.”

That rhetoric also figures in our presidential debates. In the debate two weeks ago, for example, Romney said in his closing remarks, “I’ll get incomes up again” and “I’ll restore that $716 billion to Medicare.” 

Talking about politics in that way misses a critical point of the Constitution. We live in a republic where policy has to be agreed on by a majority of two different bodies as well as signed into law by a president before it becomes effective.

In our haste to assign (and perhaps escape) blame we forget that the president, whomever he be, does not rule the United States. In explaining the new Constitution of 1787, Alexander Hamilton wrote: “The fabric of American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF THE PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legitimate authority.” It is We, the People of the United States, who rule it.

While Obama almost certainly promised too much during his campaign, by our Constitution (which celebrated its 225th birthday this year) does not allow the president to do whatever he wants. In 1787 and 1788, we had this debate. The president is not a king, never was a king or designed to be a king, and the supporters of the Constitution went through great pains to draw distinctions between our president and the British king whose realm we had just separated ourselves from.

No policy measure can be imposed arbitrarily. Laws are made (or not) by Congress. Article I, Section 1 of the Constitution — immediately after the Preamble — reads: “All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.”

As much as it is incumbent on the president to get out of the White House and do some politics with the elected senators and representatives of the American people, at some point they need to start meeting him half-way. Such problems as Obama made into campaign issues are ones that belong to the American people as a whole, not a particular party or interest group.

The planet Earth is a place we all have to live; to the extent that we let it overheat and become infertile or pollute its environment and make its ecosystems uninhabitable, it becomes an inhospitable place for the Republicans as much as it does for the hippie tree-hugging Democrats. “The economy,” whatever that means, is, as far as hugely unwieldy organisms go, a bull in a china shop affecting all our lives.

And where ending political divisions in the United States is concerned, agreeing with the Republicans on the issues is a merely superficial solution that is anything but a genuine consensus. 

Americans are divided on a whole host of issues. Divisions on several important issues are nearly half-and-half, which is a recipe for stalemate. Pluralities are even less helpful for getting things done. On abortion, 41 percent of Americans are pro-abortion rights and 50 percent are anti-abortion. On same-sex marriage, 50 percent believe such marriages should be valid and 48 percent think they should not be. On health care, 46 percent agree with the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) while another 46 percent disagree. On gun control, 41 percent believe the United States needs stricter gun control laws, and 51 percent disagree. Polling for the general election has Obama and Romney nearly tied, with the former at 47.3 percent and the latter at 47.4 percent. 

Without the ability to rule by fiat and decree, the promises of any executive require the cooperation of others. The president may be at the summit of the American political mountain, but governing is not solely his problem. That responsibility also belongs to the 100 members of the Senate, the 435 members of the House of Representatives, and the nine justices who sit on the Supreme Court.