Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared on Townhall.com, December 25, 2013.
Barring impeachment (and those of us old enough to remember Watergate should dread the prospect) or an unforeseen tragedy, Barack Obama will be president for more than three years longer.
A restatement of the obvious, perhaps, but the media are full of stories about the collapse of the Obama presidency. From Obamacare to immigration reform, the President's agenda is viewed as moribund.
It is as though some commentators think that Mr. Obama will simply slink away into political irrelevancy, becoming little more than a charming presence at various functions but with little practical authority over public policy.
Nonsense. In June 1993, Time cover-storied a floundering new president named Bill Clinton as "the incredible shrinking President." Mr. Clinton, of course, went on to a resounding reelection win and, despite the Lewinsky scandal, enjoys a good measure of national affection to this day. His record as president, for good and ill, was formidable.
That's because any president has remarkable authority. He heads 15 Cabinet and six Cabinet-level departments and, as openings allow, appoints the leadership of such agencies as the CIA, the NSA, the DIA, the Federal Reserve, the FBI, NASA, and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Presidents nominate all federal judges, from the Supreme Court on down. Yes, they need Senate confirmation, but given the recent change in Senate voting rules made by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), those nominations now have an almost unimpeded likelihood of approval.
Any president remains Commander-in-Chief of the largest and most powerful military in world history. In the case of a national emergency, he has great latitude to do whatever he thinks wisest for the security of the nation.
We also have to remember that personnel is policy: Men and women who make and implement public policy, whether through the regulatory system or their behind-the-scenes work at their posts, have a tremendous impact on the life of the nation. In the words of presidential scholar James P. Pfiffner,
Since Roosevelt's Presidency, the Executive Office of the President has gained about 2,000 people, and the number of political appointees has increased to more than 7,000. Setting aside White House staffers and about 3,000 part time Presidential appointments, each new President fills about 3,000 positions with his or her partisans. http://www.politicalappointeeproject.org/commentary/appointments-and-managing-executive-branch
As Abraham Lincoln said of the presidency, it is an office "clothed with immense power."
Undeniably, Mr. Obama is politically wounded from his deception regarding Obamacare and other substantial missteps. So, what's the fallout?
A loss of credibility. The ancient Greeks argued that the character and perception, or "ethos," of any public figure were essential to establishing his trustworthiness and the seriousness with which he is taken. For example, Professor John Edlund of Cal Poly-Pomona writes:
Aristotle uses ethos to refer to the speaker's character as it appears to the audience. Aristotle says that if we believe that a speaker has good sense, good moral character, and goodwill, we are inclined to believe what that speaker says. Today we might add that a speaker should also appear to have the appropriate expertise or authority to speak knowledgeably about the subject matter. Ethos is often the first thing we notice, so it creates the first impression that influences how we perceive the rest.http://web.calstatela.edu/faculty/jgarret/3waypers.htm
Mr. Obama's ethos has crumbled. He lied about people being able to keep their health plans (labeled by theWashington Post's "Politifact" as the "lie of the year" (http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2013/dec/12/lie-year-if-you-like-your-health-care-plan-keep-it/) and retaining their doctors. This alone, apart from other dubious and corrosive decisions, has had a devastating effect on the public's perception of him.
A loss of influence. If a President has lost his fundamental credibility, his ability to advance his agenda is crippled. As of December 20, 2013, "46 percent of 'Likely U.S. Voters' approve of President Obama's job performance. Fifty-three percent disapprove" (http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/obama_administration/daily_presidential_tracking_poll). Given the partisan and ideological divisions on Capital Hill and throughout the country, his political capital is likely insufficient for him to continue to be the "transformative" president he says he wants to be.
Reliance on Executive action. The Constitution says that a president "shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed" (Article II, Section 3). Mr. Obama's extensive use of unilateral executive authority (http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/washington/story/2011-10-26/obama-executive-orders/50942170/1) is unlikely to abate. In the words of incoming White House counselor John Podesta, the Obama White House should "focus on executive action given that they are facing a second term against a cult worthy of Jonestown in charge of one of the houses of Congress" (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2013/12/the-reboot-barack-obama-john-podesta-101259.html#ixzz2o3IzSTAL). Podesta continued, "I think [White House officials] were naturally preoccupied with legislating at first, and I think it took them a while to make the turn to execution ... the president has broad authority."
Potentially greater political risk-taking. Mr. Obama will not run again for reelection. He knows that the harried American people are occupied with many things and are inattentive to the almost innumerable actions of the federal government. Thus, he appoints true radicals like Cornelia Pillard to the federal bench (http://www.frc.org/op-eds/cornelia-pillard-is-unfit-for-the-dc-circuit-court); as Liberty Counsel's Matt Staver has written, "The first court to be stacked will be the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. That court is charged with ruling on Executive Orders and other federal administrative and agency matters" (http://libertycounsel.com/2013/12/obamas-radical-nominees-begin-surfacing-next-week-lcaction/#sthash.YIdjfwda.dpuf).
This could be the tip of the iceberg: From unilateral foreign military action to executive rulings on religious liberty, as Bill Clinton did in 1995 on religious expression in public schools (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=51609), the possibilities of extreme action under the auspices of the executive order authority is troubling.
Mr. Obama has squandered his credibility, eroded the trust of the American people in him and in the office of the presidency, and so failed in his relationship with Congress that he has come to depend on the so-called "broad authority" of the Chief Executive.
Conservatives shouldn't crow too loudly about an already-failed presidency. Instead, we need continually to consider how to advance our agenda effectively against a wily, powerful and determined political opponent and his allies. In the words of that great moral philosopher Yogi Berra, "It ain't over til it's over."