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It’s not uncommon for people in the political arena to toss around terms like “tyrant”  or “dictator” with an all-too-frequent frivolity.  It’s fair to say that just as we should make our use of references to historical villains like Hitler and Stalin a carefully reserved form of analogy, used only when events warrant, it is likewise true that we should make sparse use of terms like “dictator” when making our political and philosophical arguments. Often abused, either in definition or context, such terminology should be reserved for instances attaining a certain critical mass.  The question is now laid upon the table, and is whispered with increasing frequency: “Is Barack Obama a dictator?”  I think that while the issues involved are complex, the answer is becoming self-evident.

The President, under our US Constitution has many broadly defined powers to execute the law and be the commander-in-chief of our armed forces.  Due to the separation of powers crafted by our constitution, the guiding principle has been that for the sake of the restraint of government that a free country must retain, powers may not be delegated between the three branches of government.  More recently, every attempt has been undertaken to blur those lines of division drawn for our protection, and always seemingly in the direction of a concentration of power in the hands of the Executive.

In the last century, executive orders have become an increasingly ordinary tool of presidents.  Of course, the question remains as to the constitutional legality or validity of too broad a reliance on this form of governance.  After all, if Congress is to be the legislative branch of our government, from which all laws must issue, either to the approval or disapproval of the President, but also with override of presidential vetoes possible, there can be little doubt that the framers did not believe it was within the scope of the duties of presidents or judges to write law out of whole cloth.  That power was reserved, quite explicitly, to the Congress.

White House attorneys acting on behalf of the presidents they serve, have long used craftily-worded executive orders to create de facto law.  They generally go to substantial lengths to cite the authority for such orders in law, but in more recent years, it would be fair to argue that such legal providence has become more scarce and more tenuous.   In short, Presidents have begun to overstep their constitutional boundaries with increasing regularity and escalating contempt for the restraints placed upon them in the US Constitution.  Most frequently, they will base their claim on the doctrine of necessity, which holds that the President may do whatever is needed to carry out his duty.  Unfortunately, what the full measure or limits on presidential duties may be under the Constitution are subject to some substantial debate.  Necessity is so subjective a concept as to defy easy or even practical definition.

The ordinary usage of executive orders has been to lay out for the executive departments in what manner the law shall be enforced, but not which laws shall be enforced.  In this light, executive orders exist to permit the President the ability to describe the procedures to be followed by executive departments charged with enforcement of law.  This is a far different from a president issuing decrees that are effectively law, themselves.  A president may not ordinarily issue an order demanding double-payment of taxes due just because he determines that the government needs more revenues.  That would be to make law, or legislate, which is the sole domain of Congress.  The Neither is the President permitted to nullify law with which he happens not to agree.  For instance, the President might not like the income tax, but this does not entitle him to simply disregard it.  His oath is to faithfully execute his office, and that means to carry out the laws as they have been written, and not according to some political consideration or moral interpretation of his own. The President has no such legal discretion; the executive must carry the duly legislated body of law into factual execution.  Strictly speaking, any president thus disengaged from that duty would be eligible to removal from office on the grounds that the oath of office if not being observed.

Having set this table, one might wonder how any of this applies to our current president.  Barack Obama, his counsel, and his departments have been busying themselves with the practice of nullifying law by executive orders that forbid to federal offices and officers the power to enforce the law.  A mere two days ago, President Obama issued a memorandum to the US Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement(ICE), delegating to them a degree of “prosecutorial discretion” in deciding for which persons in violation of our immigration laws they might delay, or otherwise defer prosecution, and ultimately deportation.  Only a short time ago, the Attorney General, acting with the authority of his office and the office of the president issued a similar memorandum essentially declining to enforce the Defense of Marriage Act(DOMA.)

This sort of issuance from a president, or any of his executive departments, is certainly in the character of a disrespect for the clear separation of powers intended by the framers of our Constitution, and repeatedly supported in subsequent court findings.  Whether President Obama believes it is within his authority to nullify laws long-established, or whether he believes said laws ought not be enforced merely for political purposes, he is acting in grotesque disobedience to the rule of law, and his sworn constitutional duty to enforce it.

If a president, upon entering office, were to issue  an executive order to the Internal Revenue Service delegating to them a “prosecutorial discretion,” in much the same way as President Obama directed ICE on Friday, it would act as announcement to potential tax cheats that “the coast is clear.”   It would, therefore act also to encourage the violation of the law by restraining the natural deterrence of the threat of prosecution.  More, because the enforcement would be selective, defendants might well raise equal protection arguments that a court might well sustain.  Our Treasury, already in deficit, would find no revenues in short order.   For all intents and purposes, not only is such a betrayal of his oath an act of lawlessness on his part, but it is likewise true that such orders are likely to be an invitation to anarchy among others.  If a president, any president, is to govern in this way, we are in a de facto condition of officially sanctioned anarchy with laws subject to the vagaries of presidential whimsy.  That is a dictatorship.

Those who adhere to such an expansive view of presidential prerogative most frequently seem to take the adverse view whenever the opposing party is in power, whichever party they may support.  Each president has sought, in his turn, to expand such powers at their discretion.  With the power to rule, or negate law as he may see fit, and substantially unchallenged by a Congress with only the ultimate option of impeachment and removal at their disposal, as the means by which to enforce their will, the Republic edges ever-closer to the strict definition of a dictatorship.

It could be argued by some, and I number myself among them, that the real test of whether we live in a dictatorship is not whether a president may violate the oath, nullify law, or issue decrees, but in the question as to whether the Congress has such will as may be required to remove a president who crosses these boundaries, particularly repeatedly.  The silence of the Congress on such matters has become deafening.  It postures a little, and pouts a good deal more, but thus far, the assent denoted by its silence is stunning.  As successive presidents have arrogated to themselves authorities they ought not, and I contend do not possess, Congress has proportionately abrogated its responsibilities and duties by failing to restrain or attempt to restrain such intemperate executives as may from time to time be elected.

Is President Obama a “dictator?”  As some will note, the difference between is and is not in such discussions is a infinitesimally thin line between between willingness and execution. Some will say that our current condition is what may be termed a ‘soft tyranny,’ but its relative softness may be a matter of perspective.  Remote from its grasp in a given issue, an observer may think it so, but if one happens to be its particular object, I doubt there would be found anything ‘soft’ about it. “Dictator” may be a term that invokes a certain intensity of emotion depending on one’s perspective, but its strict meaning is much more plain.  Decide for yourself, as you must in all things, but do not avert your eyes from that which is, whatever your particular conviction.  That is the root of real tyranny: The unwillingness to see what is plain, and naked before you.

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