Oval Office or throne room? The Constitution's framers would be shocked by the power of present-day presidents like Barack Obama (photo: White House Press Office)
On November 6, 2013 at an event in Dallas, Texas, Barack Obama was noticeably glib about the exuberant wave that delivered him to his presidency in 2008. "Sometimes I worry because everybody had such a fun experience in '08, at least that's how it seemed in retrospect. And ‘Yes, we can,' and the slogans and the posters, etcetera . . . sometimes I worry that people forget change in this country has always been hard." This is an iteration of a familiar pattern: charismatic leader is elected on a mystical tuft of a platform promising transformative progress. His electoral base is a precariously sewn patchwork quilt of otherwise socio-economically incompatible voters: in Obama's case, white elites dazzled by his intellectual chops and idealism, Hispanics swayed by his promises of immigration reforms, and African-Americans justly enthused by the symbolic import of a black president. Shortly after the shimmering dust settled, though, the work at hand exposed fatal cracks in the firmament. Those cracks are the sticky hurdles of democracy, which is quite incompatible with the sort of presidential imperialism that reached its zenith with Obama.
It is precisely this combination of media-driven celebrity, prestigious office and strength in arms exemplified by the Obama presidency that F.H. Buckley, a Canadian-born American law professor, claims corrodes liberty in his forcefully argued new book, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America. Buckley suggests that the contemporary phenomenon of an all-powerful president is symptomatic of a more pervasive Anglo-American phenomenon. Obama's presidency is a culmination of the structure of American government itself, not a deviation from its constitution.
To this end, Buckley identifies the structural factors endemic to the current regime in America, which he calls crown government: the rule of an all-powerful president who can make and unmake laws by executive dictat, do what he wants and not do what he doesn't want ("George III would envy that"). He notes that political power has also become centralised in the executive branch in Britain and Canada, but to a lesser degree and with greater safeguards. America's raison d'être was formed in rebellion against the rule of one king, and yet today is governed by what founding father George Mason would deem an "elective monarchy".
Buckley attributes the rise of crown government to several factors: the tendency of power to flow from larger, disorganised groups towards single actors; the rise of the modern bureaucratic state; and the media's depiction of the executive as celebrities — all unforeseen by the framers of the Constitution, who agreed in Article II, Section 1 that "the executive Power shall be vested in a President."
Buckley's book is long on anecdotes of presidential overreach from Nixon and Reagan to Bush Jr. and Sr., but his most biting words are reserved for Obama, whom he surely views as the culmination of crown government in America. He eviscerates Obama's TARP bailout program, in which Congress authorised billions to be spent on "financial institutions" — in the end, $80 billion was actually used to bail out carmakers GM and Chrysler.