America’s two vainest presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Obama, have been the most dismissive of the federal government’s Madisonian architecture. Wilson, the first president to criticize America’s Founding, was especially impatient with the separation of powers, which he considered, as Obama does, an affront to his dual grandeur: The president is a plebiscitary tribune of the entire people, monopolizing true democratic dignity that is denied to mere legislators. And progressive presidents have unexcelled insight into history’s progressive trajectory, and hence should have untrammeled freedom to act.
Courts will not try to put a bridle and snaffle on a rampaging president, and perhaps Congress cannot, even if it summons the will to try. So we are reduced to hoping for something Madison was reluctant to rely on — executive self-restraint in response to a popular demand for it.
Fortunately, Obama’s ongoing and intensifying assault on constitutional equilibrium is so gross it has produced something commensurately remarkable — growing public interest in matters of governmental processes. Obama, who aspired to a place in the presidential pantheon, will leave office with a status more like Chester Arthur’s than Franklin Roosevelt’s, but without an achievement as large and popular as Arthur’s civil service reform. Obama will, however, merit the nation’s backhanded gratitude if the 2016 Republican presidential nominee makes central to a successful campaign a promise to retreat voluntarily from his predecessor’s Caesarism.