Tuesday, August 13, 2013

How Much Freedom of Action Does a President Have?

My guess is that it's not nearly as much as partisans think. Congress makes the laws, and a President who ignores them is very likely to be impeached - and should be. That's true even though Congress is easily stampeded into making stupid laws. Consider Guantanamo. It's a black mark on the country and Obama promised to close it. Why didn't he? Because Congress went to a lot of trouble to expressly forbid it.

Wars are another problem of the same sort. It's very hard to get out of a war even if you were elected by promising to end it. Even unpopular wars have powerful constituencies, and anybody who pulls out before the bitter end is sure to be assailed as one who has stabbed the country in the back and betrayed the sacrifice of those who have already died, been wounded, or even served.

Consider the problem of terrorism. The US has relatively small but numerically large number of Muslim citizens, who overwhelmingly are law abiding and apparently as patriotic as anybody else. A tiny fraction of that population consists of radicalized individuals who wish to damage the country. Since 9/11 we have averaged less than one significant terrorist attack on behalf of Islam per year - and a not much smaller number of anti-Islamic terrorist acts. Suppose the former number were a dozen? How long would it be before vigilante mobs began hunting out Muslims and anybody else some idiot might mistake for a Muslim - Sikhs, for example.

Are the Islamic terrorists and would be terrorists motivated by things that we, the US, actually does? Of course, but that doesn't really solve our problem. My personal belief is that we should fear the national security state - a lot - but at least in part, it may be necessary.

Is this intended as a defense of Obama? Sure, but it's also prompted by a lifetime of seeing Presidents, including some who are otherwise very smart, sucked into situations they didn't want, can't control, and don't manage to escape.

The Constitution has some powerful protections of individual rights. These rights are sometimes more honored in the breach than in the guarantee, but before we panic we ought to think and compare. Is it obnoxious if the government monitors our email? Sure, but compared to some of the things Lincoln and FDR felt they needed to do, it's very small potatoes indeed.