I am writing this post in response to what a well meaning, socially conservative friend of mine has now repeated several times. Although he is not a Obama fan by any means, he has said several times that he doesn't see why Obama (or any other president for that matter) should be held responsible for policy failures. After all, he is just one man, representing one of the three branches of the government, right?
The answer is obviously not. Although it is true that a president cannot pass legislation on his own, and is at the mercy of the Congress for laws that he chooses to sign, he can (and often does) affect the nation greatly. It is called an imperial presidency - one in which the executive branch usurps Congress’ role, which is the only branch with authority to make laws, and asserts power not granted to it by the Constitution.
The key here is constitutional fidelity. As it should be, a president who strictly adheres to the U.S. Constitution would be limited in his impact on society in general. One who treats his office as the means to subvert the constitution and achieve his own ends, not so much!
The dirty secret to those who do not follow politics closely is that most policy implementations do not come about as a result of legislation. They come as a result of regulations and presidential executive orders. Yes, regulations carry the weight of laws and by most estimates, cost several trillions of dollars each year to our economy, not to mention social costs. Some of these regulations are essential but most are mere reflections of the political ideology occupying the White House - usually progressive since the collectivist ideology clashes with laissez faire. That is a whole different subject I will write about in a dedicated article later.
Within this framework, there are several ways that a president who just might be intent on "fundamentally transforming" (sarc.) America affects change.
The most obvious is his appointments to high offices within the Executive branch including cabinet secretaries (15); heads of powerful independent agencies (70) such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Labor Relations Board (NLRB); boards, commissions, and committees (over 70 at last count); quasi-official agencies (4); and the unaccountable czars (41) that even the old Russian Empire would envy (for their sheer numbers).
Now, consider if the heads of key cabinets and so-called independent agencies are committed ideologues, for example.....oh, say Lisa Jackson, the incompetent, enviro-Marxist head of EPA; Manufacturing czar Ron Bloom - a former DSA member; Carol Browner, until recently the former White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy czar who just happens to be a former a member of the Commission for a Sustainable World Society (CSWS), which is a formal organ of the Socialist International; or any one of other radicals (upwards of two dozen) that adorn this Administration....... (A Marxist convention never had it this good!)
Well, you get the point. Appointing ideologues that agree with your radical ideology to posts where they can subvert the constitution by imposing regulation after regulation to achieve ends like driving the cost of energy to unsustainable levels kills jobs in cases of Secretary Chu and Lisa Jackson. Appointees like Craig Becker circumvent the constitution and tilt the scale towards the unions at a great cost to the rest of the society (see Boeing case and the new unionization rules that are de facto passage of the Card Check Act that the congress voted down as the prime examples). Examples are too numerous to list under this regime. The game plan is predictably collectivist and Alinskyite.
Then, there is the judiciary. President gets to appoint federal judges and SCOTUS justices to the judicial branch. Although the adversarial relationship between the branches is supposed to assure that these appointees are all acceptable to congress, that happens rarely because of either one party control of the Senate Judiciary Committee or simple lack of time to scrutinize each appointment before confirming them. This is not only how social change is affected by judges deciding on everything from school curricula that includes LGBT history appreciation to tax payer funding of abortion mills run by Planned Parenthood, but how America is put on a trajectory towards socialism as FDR accomplished in 1933-4 (and Obama may have with his two appointments if Obamacare is not eventually found to be unconstitutional).
Finally, you have the ever-so-popular presidential executive orders. Like regulations, these EOs carry major policy implications. Instead of coming from an agency head, it is essentially presidential regulations that can only be undone by a future president. Again, like with regulations, their constitutionality has been questioned but since they serve presidents well, nothing has changed.
In their great wisdom, the framers of the constitution saw fit to establish the separation of powers doctrine just to avoid the possibility of future imperial presidencies. The checks and balances system is no longer a working one as the past century has witnessed repeated assaults on what sets America apart: our Constitution.
That, in a nut shell, is the power of an imperial presidency in the hands of a president whose ideology tramples the spirit of our founding principles as well as the substance of the U.S. Constitution.
And this concludes this civics refresher we all need from time to time.