Obama’s discomfort with democracy was not limited to preferring courts and bureaucracies to votes. It was a kind of disposition. His defenders would say it blossomed under Republican intransigence, but there is no doubting the disposition. He declined to submit to the Senate for ratification the treaty (which he called a “deal”) allowing Iran a path to nuclear weapons. Or the Paris climate-change agreement made with China.
He managed, with the help of some ingenious bureaucrats and lawyers, partially to liberate the presidency from Congress’s control of the budget. His government collected tens of billions of dollars in fines (“settlements”), mostly from investment banks, redeployable by the administration—and nothing in this whole vast rap sheet of alleged white-collar crime produced a single allegation for which a major banker was sent to jail. He founded a financial watchdog agency that would be funded by the Federal Reserve, not Congress. He turned corporations subject to Justice Department antitrust scrutiny—Walmart being the glaring example—into the enforcers of administration preferences in state government. By 2015, Walmart was intimidating state lawmakers in Indiana, North Carolina, and Arkansas. There was always a lot of invisible power being wielded in the Obama administration, and the more invisible, the better: After Democrats were routed in the 2014 election, Obama claimed to have “heard” the voices of the two-thirds of people who didn’t vote.
Obama believed in elections, but in a strange way—as winner-take-all affairs. Once the victor in a presidential election was declared, there was no need to sound the people (or their representatives) until the next time round. This was a matter of principle for him: He treated the result of 2008 as if it gave him carte blanche, and there has been nothing inconsistent about his reaction to Donald Trump’s victory after November. “The people have spoken,” he told a press conference in mid-November. “Donald Trump will be the next president, the 45th president of the United States. . . . Those who didn’t vote for him have to recognize that that’s how democracy works, that’s how this system operates.”