On the CBS "60 Minutes" Sunday night, President Obama tried to allay concerns that his headlong rush to get a health care bill enacted defies the time-tested axiom that haste-makes-waste: "I intend to be president for a while and once this bill passes, I own it."
The comment may have been intended as just a colloquial way of describing the responsibility that the chief executive will have for making the new health system work. Against the backdrop of myriad other aspects of this presidency, however, a more literal - and worrying - interpretation seems in order.
Mr. Obama's remark prompted a pointed response by Weekly Standard editor William Kristol on the magazine's website: "No, Mr. President. It's not about you. If legislation passes, you don't own it. We all own it. Any health care bill will become part of the U.S. Code, not simply an item on the Obama White House web site. We will all feel its effects. We are all responsible for the future of our country. Here the people rule."
With those four words - "Here the people rule" - Mr. Kristol has identified what's most grievously wrong with President Obama's agenda. In myriad ways, some great, some small, the new administration seems increasingly to be supplanting the nation's fundamental constitutional arrangements and the institutions built upon them. The trajectory is unmistakably in the direction of certain people ruling, specifically the President.
Reduced to their essence, the endangered order can be defined as a government of, by and for all the people, one rooted in the principle that power must be exercised, pursuant to the rule of law, in representative and accountable ways. Thanks to these constitutional arrangements and institutions, the people's rule here has been assured for over two hundred years.
In the place of such quintessentially American principles and practices, however, we increasingly confront power over our economy and society being concentrated in the hands of faceless federal bureaucracies and - worse yet - those of appointed and generally unvetted "czars." [The more we learn about some of the latter, like the erstwhile "Green Jobs" czar (or, more aptly, "commissar") Van Jones, the more unsettling such a concentration of power becomes.]
The checks and balances on the executive built by the framers into the co-equal legislative branch have withered, particularly when the same political party controls both the White House and both chambers on Capitol Hill. Legislation is now routinely adopted without careful deliberation, let alone real debate. With increasing frequency, votes are taken without an opportunity afforded to lawmakers even to read the massive bills they are asked to approve. The only way one of the most controversial proposals ever considered by any Congress, namely Mr. Obama's "reform" of health care, will be approved is if the Senate disregards its own traditions and rules designed to protect the rights of the minority.
Perhaps even more worrying is the embrace by Team Obama of a still-greater affront to American sovereignty and self-governance: transnationalism. The notion that laws, regulations and rulings promulgated by foreign bureaucracies, organizations and courts should be considered to have equal standing, if not more, than those produced pursuant to the U.S. Constitution and Code further undermines the latter. Mr. Obama has begun to populate the executive and judicial branches with transnationalists like Harold Koh, Eric Holder and Sonya Sotomayor, making it increasingly probable that those unrepresentative of and unaccountable to Americans will be exercising ever-greater influence over our lives and fortunes.
Mr. Obama's characterization that he will "own" the "reformed" health care system speaks to another, more intangible but increasingly vexing factor in his presidency: the practice known in totalitarian systems as the "cult of personality" whereby, as Wikipedia puts it, "a country's leader uses mass media to create an idealized and heroic public image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise."
To be sure, all American presidents are the subject of intense press attention and public interest. Still, the extent to which the incumbent has received, with few exceptions, decidedly and sustained favorable treatment from the mass media is unprecedented. The effect is compounded by, for example, the phenomenon of what amount to Obama shrines in every airport bookstore, magazine racks full of periodicals with covers featuring one or more members of the First Family and Pepsi ads imitating the president's campaign posters and themes.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the upending of the traditional relationship between Americans and their government is captured in the video released earlier this year that featured dozens of Hollywood celebrities led by actors Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher. The participants urge us to join them as they "pledge to be a servant to our President and to all mankind."
Now, this can be chalked up to nothing more than ditsy folks in Tinsel Town enthusing about the arrival of an administration that shares their politics and deserves their unalloyed support. Still, the notion that these prominent figures are popularizing - namely, that the relationship between the President and the public should be one of the ruler and his servants - is wholly incompatible with the American Constitution and system of government it prescribes.
Worse yet, it seems consistent with the aforementioned affronts to the principle that "Here the people rule." If this pattern persists, the thousands of our disaffected countrymen and women who descended on Washington last week will be but a small foretaste of a rising determination to restore government truly of, by and for the people.