The 'we can't wait' clause: Obama seems to believe the Constitution must have room for his agenda

And yet, despite this unprecedented quartet of repetitions, the pledge appears to have rather faded in the imagination. Since the Democratic party lost control of the House in 2010, Obama has taken to speaking as if the United States were in an existential crisis. Touting his preferred unemployment legislation, the president promised dramatically in 2011 that “if Congress won’t act, I will.” A year later, adumbrating his coveted cyber-security measures, he threatened the same. In 2013, while selling his plans to alleviate climate change, Obama doggedly assured the press that “if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.” In June, slamming the legislature for declining to acquiesce to his agenda, Obama let viewers know that if the House of Representatives wouldn’t act on immigration, he would have to do it himself. And, in the early part of this week, the New York Times reported that the treaty-making power was to be abused as well, with the president attempting to establish a new climate agreement by taking a solo end-run around the Senate. In his second term especially, this has become a favorite approach — the product of a deep-seated confidence that the country is more closely wedded to his political program than it is to the settled legal order. “I promise you,” Obama affirmed earlier in the month, “the American people don’t want me just standing around twiddling my thumbs and waiting for Congress to get something done.”

Democracies being volatile things, it is difficult to know precisely what the American people “want” the president to do. Either way, it is wholly irrelevant to the question at hand. I am quite sure that it is frustrating for Barack Obama that he happens to be president of the United States at the same time as the House of Representatives is controlled by the Republican party. I daresay, too, that it was irritating for George W. Bush that he happened to be president at a time during which there were insufficient legislators to indulge his own immigration plans. But, one might ask, “So what?” However they might have conceived of themselves and their agendas, neither our 43rd nor 44th presidents were possessed of a cosmic right to see their programs codified into law. Instead, they were and are but one cog in a large machine — a machine, it should be remembered, that deliberately stations the executive as one of the least important players within the legislative field. In America, presidents enjoy the right to use their limited powers to get as much of what they want as is possible. But they enjoy nothing more. When his ambitions are tempered by the ambitions of the other elected figures within the structure … well, nothing happens. That, I’m afraid, is how separation of powers works.

More importantly, perhaps, that’s how separation of powers is supposed to work. At the time of writing, the United States is not in extremis — and nor are its political arrangements historically egregious. Instead, the system is humming along nicely. There is little point in having a written constitution if the president can merely free himself from its restrictions when he deems them irresponsible. Nor, for that matter, is there much virtue in the people’s sending men and women to Washington to serve as a check on the president if the very act of being checked provokes him into circumventing the rules. Which is to say that Obama is irritated not with his inability to deal with imminent catastrophe, but with business as usual, and his lamentations amount not to a Churchillian roar but to a whine. On a human level, one can empathize. It is never nice to be thwarted when you believe that you have the only acceptable answers. On a legal level, though, one can do little more than shrug. Congress was elected, too.