THE BLOG
01/25/2016 09:01 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2017

Choking on Our Certainty

NICHOLAS KAMM via Getty Images

There is an unhealthy arrogance of certainty permeating our political discourse that says: Only our side is virtuous. Only our side is pure, moral, high-minded, ethical and principled.

If we do indeed see ourselves in this light, what is the best that can be offered to those in opposition to our worldview?

It is to believe the side of the political continuum that we endorse holds the key to American success. In other words, we, and we alone, are in sole possession of "The" truth.

Even a campaign slogan such as "Make America Great Again" assumes America was great at one point. There is a shared understanding of the definition of great, along with a shared acceptance of the great time period of yesteryear.

But the certainty that is currently so pervasive offers a good case study in how one views President Obama's use of executive orders.

Since November 2014, the president has used executive action to achieve a carbon emissions deal with China, temporary amnesty for 5 million illegal immigrants, normalize relations with Cuba, an Iran nuclear deal, a Paris climate deal and the tightening of gun control.

The strict constructionists are bemoaning, "What about Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution that reads: 'All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States?'"

But Article II, Section 1 justifies the president's actions. It grants "executive Power," and Section 3 of Article II further directs the president to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed."

If we eliminate Franklin D. Roosevelt, given he served three full terms as president, Obama still trails presidents Harry Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in terms of executive orders issued. But the existing narrative by those with a different certainty suggests the president is running roughshod over the nation's governing document.

Criticism of the president's actions is invariably conducted in isolation of other factors. That criticism embraces a sophomoric understanding of our checks-and-balances system.

Here's where the arrogance of certainty comes into play. If the scenario were reversed and a Democratic Congress was in the majority, unwilling to work with a Republican president, and he or she opted for executive action, would the same criticisms apply or would the roles change?
If those who decry the president's current actions suddenly became silent when a commander in chief of their liking acted similarly, couldn't one conclude that the dissent is more about political cacophony than constitutional concerns?

The Republican-led legislative branch has not only demonstrated willingness to not work with the president, but has also placed a portion of its responsibility on the back of the Supreme Court.

Back in June, the Supreme Court upheld a key part of the Affordable Care Act that provided insurance subsidies to all qualifying Americans.

The Court was asked to interpret a passage in the law that said the tax credits are authorized for those who buy insurance on the marketplaces that are "established by the state."

The Court's 6-3 decision was met with charges of legislating from the bench. In this case, there might be some validity to the accusations.

But that does not tell the whole story. This was the responsibility of Congress and not the courts. The moment judges are asked to interpret the meaning of legislation, and not whether it passes constitutional muster, is problematic, democratically speaking.

But the 2015 ACA case should not have been sent to the Supreme Court. It merely required that members of Congress from both parties sit down, fix the language and pass an amended bill for the president to sign.

The lack of cooperation has created an atmosphere whereby we celebrate the evidence of our certainty, manifested in our preferred virtuous pursuits, while eschewing the rest without appreciation for its interdependent nature.

Excessive executive orders, asking the Supreme Court to function in roles for which it was not designed, or Congress taking on a recalcitrant posture toward governing, though not illegal, does violate the spirit of our form of government.

These abuses are only accepted when our particular slice of virtuous certainty is held out as the only way for the nation to move forward.

Good luck with that.