So it’s come to this: the only thing that can save President Obama from his own complacent and lofty self-regard, not to mention his serial failures, are his enemies, and that is what it appears they are about to do. Even as his poll numbers sink to new lows that not even George W. Bush or Richard Nixon sunk to, even as the economy continues to falter, even as the so-called US-Mexico border devolves into chaos, even as al-Qa’eda’s successor establishes its own state in the ruins of Syria and Iraq, and even as the Democrats appear on the verge of losing the Senate as well as the House of Representatives, Obama’s foes seem eager to resuscitate his presidency by launching a demented movement to impeach him.
There is, for example, Sarah Palin, the indefatigable former Governor of Alaska and heartthrob of ageing white males, writing on Tuesday on Breitbart.com to demand that Obama be ousted: ‘It’s time to impeach; and on behalf of American workers and legal immigrants of all backgrounds, we should vehemently oppose any politician on the left or right who would hesitate in voting for articles of impeachment. The many impeachable offences of Barack Obama can no longer be ignored. If after all this he’s not impeachable, then no one is.’
There is the South Dakota Republican party meeting this past weekend to call for the impeachment of Obama for ‘violating his oath of office in numerous ways’. And there is the Washington Post columnist George F. Will, who recently wrote a column calling upon House speaker John Boehner to sue Obama for ‘offences against the separation of powers’. Boehner is widely expected to do so soon, if for no reason other than to placate the Tea Party types. His spokesman Michael Steel says, ‘The House has passed legislation to address this, but it has gone nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate, so we are examining other options.’
The trouble with trying to impeach Obama, other than the fact that it’s not only bound to fail and that the American Constitution contains no provision for jettisoning a president based on failure, is that it will allow him to gloss over his own hapless record. The claim is that Obama has been acting like a monarch, a tyrant usurping the rights of Congress by issuing executive orders on the environment and failing to consult with Congress about extricating Bowe Bergdahl from the clutches of the Taleban. As Boehner put it in a CNN op-ed, ‘The President has circumvented the American people and their elected representatives through executive action, changing and creating his own laws, and excusing himself from enforcing statutes he is sworn to uphold.’
But such rodomontade won’t go far in a courtroom. The fact is that American presidents have been issuing dodgy executive orders for decades, and George W. Bush issued far more than Obama ever did. Anyway, none of this comes close to the ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’ that America’s founding fathers specified as the basis for impeachment — a proceeding that is supposed to be as rare as it is serious.
The truth is that, as with many American presidents from Thomas Jefferson onwards, Obama’s second term has been disastrous. Incompetence, not criminality, is at the bottom of his woes. In retrospect, the trouble began with Syria. Remember Obama’s ‘red line’ that turned out to be no such thing? Ever since then, a pattern has emerged of Obama talking a tough game that he should never have enunciated in the first place if he wasn’t willing to act on it.
To be sure, he hasn’t enmeshed the US in a fresh war. He’s tried to extract it from Iraq. But no sooner did he exit Iraq than the emergence of Isis forced him to send military advisers back to Baghdad — a country he had deemed ‘stable and self-reliant’ — where they apparently will work in league with Iran to turn back a surge of Sunni terrorism.
At the same time, Obama has been dinged at home by both liberal hawks and conservatives for displaying a marked passivity toward Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea. Meanwhile, China has been taking more aggressive steps to expand its influence and reach. Each day seems to bring fresh evidence of Obama’s sovereign detachment and his inability to master crises at home and abroad. Even Obama’s recent, much-ballyhooed speech at West Point turned out to be a muddle, attempting simultaneously to reconcile realism, internationalism, neoconservatism, and virtually every other foreign policy ‘ism’ — prompting the normally sympathetic New York Times editorial page to lament that it was a dud.
Despite Obama’s multifarious difficulties, an impeachment trial would almost be guaranteed to revive him. The Republicans, as is their wont, would castigate him for his sins and omissions, while the Democratic base would rally to a president who has become a victim of a right-wing conspiracy to topple him from office.
The Republicans and the Tea Party crowd should remember what happened to Bill Clinton after the then House Speaker Newt Gingrich had him impeached over the Monica Lewinsky affair. Clinton emerged from the proceedings more popular than ever and the Republicans were left to lick their wounds, succumbing to a succession of their own sex scandals in the aftermath. Obama, like Clinton, would probably emerge unscathed and more popular. At a minimum, he would be able to declare that his opponents were every bit as intractable as he’d always said.
For all the Sturm und Drang about Obama, he is likely to end his second term in office much as he began it: personally likeable and politically negligible. At this point, desperate for something to revive his sinking presidency, Obama may well be pondering a line that George W. Bush used to be fond of: ‘Bring ’em on.’
Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of the National Interest.