In his Saturday address President Trump talked about Senate action on his first Supreme Court nominee that will “protect the rule of law and democratic way of life that is absolutely a birthright of all Americans.”1 That democratic way of life may be our right, but how often does it work for us when something needs to get done? That’s where visionary leaders make a difference. The job at hand often has nothing to do with democracy.
Visionary leaders don’t work with Washington
Trump also spoke of the separation of powers and “preserving our Republic.”2 Like Obama, he knows that what he has to do to get the hard things done can’t depend on our democratic way of life or constitutionally-established government. It will have a lot to do with striking out on his own and learning what he can get away with.
Many conservatives referred to Obama as a dictator when he took matters into his own hands. Trump’s turn will come next. When Congress won’t cooperate, is that what visionary leaders have to be to serve the people?
Democratic way of life won’t get the dirty work done
Congress is a roadblock to progress. That truism is getting worse.
Visionary presidents have ways around safeguards like the separation of powers that define our democratic system. If they didn’t, especially in this climate, nothing would get done.
Elements in the president’s party turned on him when he needed Republicans to come together to implement the vision he promised voters. We saw the unthinkable, an ideological defection no good Democrat would be capable of. Obamacare may have its hand too deep in our pocketbooks, but don’t expect a quick solution from Capitol Hill.
A presidential order won’t fix health care, but other opportunities are almost endless.
Orders prevent democracy from standing in our way
Some of the things Obama will be remembered for were workarounds that avoided democratic government like orders for transgender rights and salaried employee overtime. Republicans wouldn’t play ball on these things. Obama got what he wanted anyway. He was invested enough to force his vision of what America should be without the consent of the governed.
How long would Trump wait if he relied on Congress to enact even the most minimal foreign travel screening? His executive action for what Democrats eagerly labeled a “Muslim ban” just begged for sanctimonious chest-beating. So did his orders to repeal parts of Obama’s environmental legacy.
Ironically, it is the federal courts and not Congress that bedeviled both presidents when judges said no. Obama lost out on his DACA expansion. Trump’s travel ban was blocked. No one said this wasn’t a hit or miss process. When it hits it can bring big results. When it misses there is always another chance. Ultimately, a single federal judge can pronounce judgment and stop an order from taking effect.
Is that democracy?
Separation of powers means legislating without legislation?
Executive orders force our democratic system to do something it would not otherwise be capable of: legislating without legislation.
We hand our power to govern to elected representatives. That doesn’t mean they will do it. There is far too much intrigue, infighting, and stonewalling to attend to that most difficult task of all, agreeing to pass laws that work for everyone.
Obama was a consummate politician. Trump doesn’t sound like a politician. For him, being a visionary leader means mouthing off about things politicians are afraid to touch like Muslims who kill, illegals who rape, a North Korean dictator we have ignored for too long, and a press that loathes the day this conservative president was born. He doesn’t mind picking a fight with members of his own party after they stood in his way on health care.
If this non-politician president succeeds it will probably be by doing the same kinds of things Obama did. He will bypass America’s democratic ways and do what he chooses to impose his own unique take on what will improve life in our nation.
No matter how you feel about Barack Obama’s contributions, he was as close to a visionary leader as the Democratic Party has had for a very long time. He blazed some new trails. He turned the nation on its head and did much of it on his own. That’s what Trump will be forced to do too, including scrapping orders that were part of his predecessor’s legacy but don’t align with his vision for our democratic way of life.
Supreme Court justices can do what they want. They can also be visionary leaders but they serve until they decide to call it quits. How does that have anything to do with America’s democratic way of life? It doesn’t, but not much about effective leadership in Washington today does.
1. “President Donald J. Trump’s Weekly Address.” The White House. March 31, 2017. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/03/31/president-donald-j-trumps-weekly-address, retrieved April 2, 2017.