As part of his strategy of shifting blame for the sequester onto Republicans, President Obama told reporters that his hands were politically tied. He stated, “I am not a dictator, I’m the president.” In other words, he could not bypass Congress to unilaterally impose his will.
And yet this is precisely what Obama has been doing for years. He has bypassed Congress through executive orders and through massive administrative agencies whose regulations require no congressional approval. “Red Tape Rising: Obama-Era Regulation at the Three Year Mark,” a March 2012 study from the Heritage Foundation, found that “the Obama Administration has imposed new regulations costing $46 billion annually, with nearly $11 billion more in one-time implementation costs.” Since 2012, the pace of regulation has picked up, and a tsunami of red tape is expected in Obama’s second term.
Obama has also been excoriated for unilaterally approving the bombing and invasion of nations with which America was not and is not at war. Article 1, section 8 of the United States Constitution states, “Congress shall have Power to … declare War … and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water.”
Obama is not the first president to snub Congress on war measures, but he is probably the most flagrant repeat offender. In response to America’s 2011 involvement in a NATO-led attack on Libya, both House Republicans and Democrats condemned Obama’s bypassing of Congress. Democrat Jerrold Nadler warned that Obama was becoming an “absolute monarch.… And we must put a stop to that right now, if we don’t want to become an empire instead of a republic.”
In response, Obama denied being a monarch. Indeed, he has denied it repeatedly up to this day. In a 2013 interview with the Hispanic network Univision, Obama explained his immigration policy with the words, “I think it’s important to remind everybody that, what I’ve said previously, I am not a king.”
A president who persistently proclaims himself to be neither a dictator nor an absolute monarch is a worrisome thing. It is like a stranger who shakes your hand and says “I am not a thief.” It makes you wonder why the question is arising.
How do a dictator and a monarch differ?
In terms of the arbitrary power wielded, a dictator and an absolute monarch are similar. It is one-man rule. Whether the man is called a führer, a king, or a president does not alter the amount of centralized and unaccountable authority grasped by his hand.
The main differences lie in the path to and the administration of absolute power. Dictators usually arise in one of two manners: They use violence, as in a coup d’etat, often beginning as military leaders. Or they are elected in a “popular” vote as Hitler was in 1933. Then they seize absolute power. In Hitler’s case, he was sufficiently elected to establish a cooperative coalition within the Reichstag that passed the Enabling Act; the act made him a de facto dictator.
Such a dictator retains power by changing the laws of a nation, by delegating authority to those who are unswervingly loyal, and by brute force. Elections are either suspended or rigged, with political opponents being persecuted. The dictator also fosters a “cult of the strong man,” in which the public glorifies him — even for savage acts like war.
An absolute monarch has a hereditary position that usually involves some version of the “divine right of kings” — that is, the right of a monarch to rule however he pleases because God has appointed him to do so. No elections or violent coups need to occur, and the laws of the land are not necessarily changed; the laws are part of what brought him to the throne, which is a permanent position. Otherwise, the absolute monarch’s exercise of power can be as total and capricious as a dictator’s. Moreover, he also uses bureaucracy and the loyalty of lackeys in a similar manner.
So far, if only because of the hereditary requirement, Obama resembles a dictator more than an absolute monarch. But the roots of America embrace a different sort of monarchy: an elective one. This is a monarchy in which the king is elected to office rather than ascending to it as a birthright. The election of a pope as the ruler of the Vatican City is a modern example. In this form of monarchy, the leader serves under well-established rules and with checks on his power, such as a legislature.
Shortly after the American Revolution, George Washington was a clear choice to become king of America. Washington was wildly popular, especially with the army, and some of the Founding Fathers openly discussed having a monarchy limited by a constitution. At the Constitutional Convention (1787), for example, Alexander Hamilton argued for an elective monarch who would hold office during “good behavior”; this meant a life term, unless he was impeached.
For most of the delegates, however, the memory of the British King George III was too fresh.
Perhaps the most compelling argument against an elective monarchy in America came from abroad. In his masterful work An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), the British classical liberal William Godwin devoted a chapter to the prospect. In chapter 9, entitled “Of a President With Regal Powers,” Godwin asked “What are we to understand by the appellation, a king?” He concluded that the term required an assortment of certain powers to be held by one man; for example, the king could refuse his “sanction” to the decrees of popular assemblies. Of course, the president has a similar power through his ability to veto bills passed by Congress.
Godwin speculated on the advantages and disadvantages of rule by a king versus rule by “a society or council of men.” He stressed the disadvantages. The king
is more easily corrupted, and more easily misled. He cannot possess so many advantages for obtaining accurate information. He is abundantly more liable to the attacks of passion and caprice, of unfounded antipathy to one man and partiality to another, of uncharitable censure or blind idolatry. He cannot be always upon his guard; there will be moments in which the most exemplary vigilance is liable to surprise. Meanwhile we … are supposing his intentions to be upright and just; but the contrary of this will be more frequently the truth. Where powers beyond the capacity of human nature are intrusted, vices the disgrace of human nature will be engendered.
Through the centuries, suspicion of monarchy has continued to be written deeply in the American character. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt won a successive four terms as president, the Twenty-Second Amendment to the Constitution was passed. It states,
No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.
Nevertheless, many speculate on whether Obama intends to seek a third term. Doing so would require either a repeal of the Twenty-Second Amendment or its de facto nullification — as Obama has done with other key aspects of the Constitution, such as the requirement for due process for all Americans. If Obama does seek a third term or if he suspends the next presidential election by declaring a national emergency, then he would have taken a leap closer to being an elective monarch in the Hamiltonian sense (a king who serves indefinitely unless he is impeached) — or, perhaps, a leap toward absolute monarchy.
Obama clearly feels a need to deny being a dictator or king. Why?
Whether or not the authority Obama wields is more monarchical than presidential, he must be seen as a duly elected official. The legitimacy of the president draws heavily upon the Constitution and the structure of government it establishes, including elections. Obama is president only because he followed the process prescribed by America’s founding document. As much as he may dislike the Constitution, it is an integral part of how he achieved power and why the American people accept him as a legitimate leader, even if they detest him. If he loses that legitimacy, then he risks a loss of support that may be enough to end his reign through impeachment or other means.
For better or worse, America is still wedded to the concept of democracy. Dictators and active monarchs are viewed as profoundly anti-American. And so Obama must prominently and repeatedly reject those titles. It is what the smart dictator or monarch would do.