It is precisely when the Founders’ system of government is at its best that the people least appreciate it. It is designed to frustrate.
It is a glorious day in America: President Joe Biden has suffered an ignominious defeat.
In the near term, it is important to defeat President Biden because he is Biden. In the long term, it is important to defeat President Biden because he is president.
Biden had hoped to get his big spending bills through Congress before doodling off to Rome for the G-20 meeting and then on to Glasgow for the big UN climate conference. Congress has proved admirably disagreeable, at least for the moment.
Enjoy the moment.
Like so many presidents before him, Biden conflates the prospects of the nation and its system of government with the prospects of his political agenda. Speaking in Connecticut a couple of weeks ago, he said it was necessary for Congress to act on his agenda in order that he might show the Russian and Chinese strongmen, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, that democracies can get things done. But Congress has just proved that it can get important things done, and one of those important things is telling the president: “No.” Or, “No, not quite,” or “No, not now.”
It has happened to better men than Joe Biden.
In the days before Congress’s self-respect was eclipsed by its self-importance, George Washington sent the Senate a note saying that he would be at the chamber “at half-past eleven tomorrow,” with tomorrow underlined for emphasis, to discuss a certain Indian treaty. President Washington did indeed show up, and the Senate told him — wait. The Senate was not ready to consider the treaty and referred it to committee. President Washington, the senators said with all due respect, could come back when they were ready. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Washington never did return, instead conducting his business with Congress in writing from that point forward, as his successors generally have.
It was a little thing, but the senators knew what they were doing: Washington hated to be kept waiting — his relationship with Alexander Hamilton had been severely strained by the younger man’s once having failed to drop everything and attend to him immediately — and the Senate wanted to let Washington know that he was not a species of king, that Congress and the president were equals at least, and that the republican spirit of the young nation would be ill-served by having the president summon and command the Senate.
Biden is no George Washington, to say the least.
And Biden does not have the status in the United States that Xi has in China or Putin has in Russia. And that would be the case even if he were a much greater man than he is, because the American president is not meant to be a figure such as Xi or Putin. We are a nation of laws, and to be governed by the law is to be governed by lawmakers. Matters of taxing and spending involve congressional powers rather than presidential ones, and they are the especial domain of the House of Representatives. President Biden can dream up a deadline and underline it, and lawmakers can — bless their pointy little heads! — ignore him.
The tussle between left-wing Democrats in the House and centrist Democrats in the Senate is an example of precisely how our government is supposed to work. The House, with its smaller districts and elections every two years, is the theater for popular passions, and the Senate, with its more exclusive membership and longer terms, is where popular passions go to cool off. The House is the accelerator, and the Senate is the brake. The demagogues and vulgar democrats are outraged: “Biden won the election,” they say, “so he should be able to have his agenda enacted.” But Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema won their elections, too. So did Mitch McConnell, who seems to be taking his ease for a moment as the Democrats joust with one another. We are one nation under God, not one nation under the president.
We do not have a hereditary monarch, as the British do, nor do we have an elected king, as some of our ancient forebears did. We do not have a king at all. Even in this degraded period of presidential idolatry and presidential caesaropapism, the American president is not a god-emperor — and he isn’t a gangster such as Putin or an autocratic party boss such as Xi, either. He is not the national lawgiver.
Our laws are instead made by an unruly assembly representing distinct and often rivalrous interests. It is because those interests really are distinct and rivalrous that we are always being lectured by presidents about “unity” and always being stampeded by politicians who insist that we are in a state of endless emergency — where there are many distinct interests, one must negotiate. Xi Jinping doesn’t negotiate with his subjects. Neither does Putin. It is very difficult to cure American presidents of their autocrat envy.
(One of the virtues of George W. Bush was that he was unusually resistant to that, probably as a consequence of the way he was brought up and educated.)
Being gentlemen of the 18th century, our founders could not possibly have imagined life in these United States in the 21st century. And the political forebears of our progressives were denouncing the Constitution as outmoded while the ink was still wet. Yet all these years later it still manages to function, in a surprising number of ways, more or less as intended. As John Adams might have predicted, it is precisely when our constitutional order is at its best that the people least appreciate it. It is frustrating, because it is designed to frustrate.
It may irritate Joe Biden, but it is a glorious thing to see at work. Enjoy the moment — while it lasts.