Opinion and Taking Issue

RUSTHOVEN: Obama's Teflon starting to wear

May 25, 2013

RusthovenThe president’s had a bad fortnight. Worse lies ahead.

It’s become undeniable (though denials persist) that the White House and State Department misled us about the Benghazi terrorist attack in the midst of an election, even demoting and trying to silence career diplomats. By a 55-33 margin (60-28 among independents), Americans believe the administration is engaged in a cover-up.

Benghazi no longer leads the list of troubles. Two new scandals compete for that honor. One is IRS targeting of conservative groups, which angers citizens. The other is the administration’s going after phone and computer records from the Associated Press and Fox News. This has the more dangerous effect of infuriating journalists, including many who’ve been Obama cheerleaders and enablers.

When an IRS official invokes the Fifth Amendment before Congress, a scandal has legs. When The New York Times editorializes on “Another Chilling Leak Investigation,” a liberal Democratic president is in for a rough time. Both have just happened.

In the midst of this, the president chose to give a commencement speech chastising those suspicious of government power—who “warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner”—telling graduates they “should reject these voices.”

Bad timing, Mr. President. Bad marks, too, on government philosophy and human nature.

To quote one voice we’re told to reject, accumulation of power “in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

The same gentleman understood human nature in the political arena. He knew dividing power among government branches was important, but also knew this was insufficient to prevent tyranny: “Mere demarcation on parchment of the constitutional limits of the several departments, is not a sufficient guard against those encroachments which lead to a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands.”

Our speaker also believed it critical that the majority be rendered “unable to concert and carry into effect schemes of oppression.”

He had lessons on the substantive front as well, listing among the evils to be prevented a “rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.”

You’ve likely guessed from the locution style that the voice was one of the founders. Four stars if you identified James Madison, arguing in The Federalist Papers for ratification of our then-new Constitution.

As Madison pointed out, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But “in framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”

As grows clearer by the day, Obama and his acolytes dislike that second part, at least when they are running things. This is not new; nor is it confined to Democrats and liberals. There’s a reason Madison and other founders devoted so much time to these topics 225 years ago. There’s a reason journalists of all stripes are now making comparisons to Richard Nixon, which must surely infuriate his equally thin-skinned current successor.

I do not want Obama’s presidency to end as Nixon’s did. But the current abuses of government power, and the arrogance of which these are born, are beyond troubling—and beyond defense.•

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Rusthoven, an Indianapolis attorney and graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, was associate counsel to President Reagan. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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