In 1908, Woodrow Wilson wrote:
The government of the United States was constructed upon the Whig theory of political dynamics, which was a sort of unconscious copy of the Newtonian theory of the universe. In our own day, whenever we discuss the structure or development of anything, whether in nature or in society, we consciously or unconsciously follow Mr. Darwin; but before Mr. Darwin, they followed Newton.George Will writes:
America’s Newtonian Constitution might again function according to Madisonian expectations if a provoked Congress regains its spine and self-respect, thereby returning our constitutional architecture to equipoise. But this is more to be hoped for than expected. Even without this, however, the institutional vandalism of Barack Obama’s executive unilateralism still might be a net national benefit. It will be if the Republicans’ 2016 presidential nominee responds to Obama’s serial provocations by promising a return to democratic etiquette grounded in presidential self-restraint.
Not since the off-year elections of 1938, when voters rebuked Franklin Roosevelt for his attempt to pack the Supreme Court by enlarging it, has the electorate made constitutional equilibrium a central concern. James Madison, however, hoped institutional balance could be self-maintaining: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place.”
America’s two vainest presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Obama, have been the most dismissive of the federal government’s Madisonian architecture. Wilson, the first president to criticize America’s Founding, was especially impatient with the separation of powers, which he considered, as Obama does, an affront to his dual grandeur: The president is a plebiscitary tribune of the entire people, monopolizing true democratic dignity that is denied to mere legislators. And progressive presidents have unexcelled insight into history’s progressive trajectory, and hence should have untrammeled freedom to act.
Obama, who aspired to a place in the presidential pantheon, will leave office with a status more like Chester Arthur’s than Franklin Roosevelt’s, but without an achievement as large and popular as Arthur’s civil service reform. Obama will, however, merit the nation’s backhanded gratitude if the 2016 Republican presidential nominee makes central to a successful campaign a promise to retreat voluntarily from his predecessor’s Caesarism.