Right-wingers and some conservatives are trying out a new approach in their attacks on Obama – as you can see from the growing meme on the right that Obama has no respect for the Rule of Law. I’ve come across this meme in a George Will column, a Wall Street Journal editorial, and in a blog post by Jim Manzi for the National Review / The American Scene all last week. All three authors have focused on one particular event – Obama’s role in the Chrysler sale/bankruptcy/bailout. I for one am glad to see the National Review and Wall Street Journal finally coming around to accepting the importance of the Rule of Law after eight years of promoting George W. Bush’s blatant disregard for the law – but I digress.
The past eight years have demonstrated to many Democrats and liberals the vital importance of the respect for the Rule of Law to a well-functioning state – as President Bush concentrated more and more power in the White House and asserted authorities both beyond and over the law – which is why an accusation that President Obama is not respecting the Rule of Law must be taken seriously.
It is hard though to take the example all three authors use seriously – Obama’s intervention in the Chrysler mess. I can understand why people might object to what Obama did – if you consider unions to be a malevolent force, you certainly don’t want them helped out – and it is unseemly that they donated so much to Obama only to be rewarded now (of course, the creditors also gave Obama a great deal of support.) But neither of these objections is based on Obama disrespecting the Rule of Law.
Certainly, even these authors are not accusing Obama of disrespecting the Rule of Law in the same manner as George W. Bush – who did not believe he was bound by law when acting to protect Americans. The unitary executive theory he accepted and Cheney, Addington, and others used, is a direct assault on the idea that the president is bound by the law. Obama does not take this position.
These authors make a big point of the fact that Obama is abrogating contracts – but this objection is a bit silly. Obama is not a party to these contracts – and thus has no obligation to honor them personally. The Contracts clause of the Constitution – the Law which it is being alleged Obama has broken – was meant to constrain the individual states rather than the President or even the Congress. Congress was in fact given the power to abrogate contracts through bankruptcy proceedings in the Constitution. Obama – in intervening in the case of Chrysler – helped to negotiate an out-of-court settlement of the matter. Out-of-court settlements happen all the time – and are welcomed by overburdened judges who see it as better to allow all sides to come to an agreement rather than having to order them to agree.
To call this a violation of the Rule of Law is disingenuous at best.
What these authors are right to be concerned about is the concentration of power that undermines the system of the Rule of Law – as the government’s role in backstopping the finance and auto industries leaves it with enormous leverage. But their fears should be allayed by the fact that most of these interventions are temporary. (Of course, George Will is on the record disbelieving this based on the old adage – as are all of Will’s beliefs – that once government has taken a power, it will not give it up.)
Liberals have continued to voice a different set of concerns about Obama’s respect for the Rule of Law – pointing to the many Bush administration positions Obama has accepted. But they key difference between Bush and Obama is that even as Obama may be putting forward positions on these issues which are controversial, Obama has given the sense he will concede if his legal means of asserting these claims are defeated. Bush in at least one instance refused to end a clearly illegal program despite the fact that his own Justice Department had declared it illegal.
I do find a few areas of concern. The power of the executive branch has grown enormously in the financial crisis – between the Stimulus Bill and the bank bailout. While in the short-term this may be necessary, if steps are not taken, this would undermine the balance of power between the federal government and the states. While this in itself is not a violation of the Rule of Law – it does weaken the system which together helps maintain the Rule of Law. And it is this that conservatives and right-wingers seem to be ojecting to – but their rhetoric about the Rule of Law being disregarded is hyperventilationist – and for those who did not likewise say the same of our previous president, hypocritical.
But by far the most disturbing manner in which Obama is undermining the Rule of Law is in how his administration is keeping Bush’s policies on the matter of Bagram. The Supreme Court’s ruling on the rights of detainees to certain basic rights at Guantanamo was in a large part based on the idea that our government should not be able to deprive an individual of rights merely by moving them to a particular location. But this is exactly what the Obama administration is claiming with regards to the detainees brought to Bagram from around the world. Our nation’s freedoms are grounded in our traditions. This includes a respect for contracts, a balance of various powers, and an energetic chief executive – but at it’s base, our traditions are grounded in a single, fundamental restriction on the state. To quote Winston Churchill:
The power of the executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious, and the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist.