The Limits of Presidential Power

As some of you know, Chuck Grassley is making a fuss over the link on the Health and Human Services website that allows people to click a button to "state your support for health reform this year".  The White House is arguing that it's legal.  Possibly, just barely.  But it's creepy, and the government shouldn't be doing this.

There are good reasons that we keep the operations of the permanent civil service out of the legislative arena.  Though it is part of the executive branch, the civil service is not supposed to work to advance the President's agenda; it is there to carry out the laws that have already been passed.  (And no, it's not okay when Republican presidents do it either--though I'm not sure whether he actually did anything wrong*, or just thought about it.)

It's thus entirely inappropriate for the HHS website to contain a link to this letter:

We strongly support your commitment to comprehensive health reform.

This is not a luxury. The continuing, sharp escalation of health care costs for families, businesses, and government is unsustainable. Reform is imperative.

We believe that health reform must be enacted this year.

Reform is needed to help America's families struggling with rising costs and those who are losing their insurance. At the same time, real health reform is crucial to keeping American businesses competitive in the world economy and for the country's long-term economic viability. As our country faces economic challenges, the time for reform is now.

We support health reform that follows these principles:

  • Protect families' financial health
  • Assure affordable, quality health coverage for all Americans
  • Provide portability of coverage
  • Guarantee choice of doctors
  • Invest in prevention and wellness
  • Improve patient safety and quality of care
  • End barriers to coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions
  • Reduce long-term growth of health costs for businesses and government

During these extraordinarily challenging times, we need to put aside past differences and address the health and economic crisis. Our shared interest must come before narrow interests so we can achieve a health system that is affordable and provides high quality for all Americans. We will support your budget with its reserve fund dedicated to achieving health care reform in a fiscally responsible manner. Each of us must be prepared to contribute to achieving this fundamental goal.

By signing this statement we affirm our commitment to work with you and our Congressional leaders to enact legislation this year which provides affordable, high quality coverage for all Americans.

Obviously, there is no corresponding link where you can say "Thanks, but no thanks."

The White House's rather wan defense is that since it doesn't refer to an actual bill, it's okay.  This is ludicrous.  It's not somehow better because you get people to sign a letter saying that they'll support any bill with these characteristics.  They're using government resources to collect political support for the president.  I thought that went out with the spoils system.  Though I'm sure I'll have any number of liberal commenters jumping in to say that this is entirely different, of course agencies are allowed to recruit support for legislative efforts, and anyway Republicans did it and it is just my overwhelming bias to think that there should be quite a few hard restraints on the president's exercise of his soft power.

Increasingly, I feel like Obama and his team are trying to run his office like a community organizing outfit.  But this is the presidency, not a political campaign.  You don't put your message out through every available channel, you don't go to war on news operations, and you don't threaten groups that say things you don't like.  You are now running the whole country, not trying to win a race.

I don't mean this to sound like what I'm sure a lot of my conservative commentators will make it into--some screed to the effect that Obama is a tinpot dictator and a secret communist.  I think Obama's longest life experience is as a campaigner, and so it's natural that this infects his actions as he learns to govern.  And I think that, again like most presidents, he is testing the boundaries of his power.  But I think it behooves the American citizenry to set firm limits, and slap his hand when he overreaches them.

* I mean, this particular thing.  I'm very sure about lots of other things he did wrong.