Halfway between Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory and the Republican’s presidential inauguration, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) appeared on “60 Minutes,” and talked to CBS News’ Scott Pelley about his expectations for the new administration.
Ryan said he and Trump had spoken “extensively” about constitutional limits and the separation of powers, and he felt optimistic about the road ahead. The GOP lawmaker added that the incoming president “feels very strongly, actually, that under President Obama’s watch, he stripped a lot of power away from the Constitution, away from the legislative branch of government. And we want to reset the balance of power.”
Pelley, somewhat surprised, asked, “You don’t think [Trump] thinks he’s going to run this country the way he wants to?” Ryan responded, “No, I think he understands there’s a Constitution.”
More than two years later, it’s hard to know whether to laugh or cry.
The partisan whining was generally difficult to take seriously, but for much of Barack Obama’s presidency, Republicans somehow convinced themselves that the Democrat was an out-of-control tyrant, hellbent on institutional limits and the rule of law.
When the Democrat used his authority to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) wrote an op-ed condemning the “imperial presidency of Barack Obama.” Then-Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) went so far as to blame Obama’s dictatorial tendencies for street crime.
“Whether it is New York, Chicago or San Francisco, it is happening everywhere,” Christie said on MSNBC in June 2016. “The president has encouraged this lawlessness.”
In 2014, Paul Ryan declared, “We have an increasingly lawless presidency where he is actually doing the job of Congress, writing new policies and new laws without going through Congress.”
The then-House Speaker called such an approach to governing “dangerous.”
It was obvious at the time that the hysterical criticisms of Obama were not to be taken seriously. Love the former president or hate him, he was clearly not a dictatorial tyrant, eager to destroy the norms of American governing.
But those criticisms of Obama have quietly made the transition from silly to ironic.
It is, after all, a Republican president – the one who was supposed to “reset the balance of power” and put more policymaking control in the hands of Congress – who will today grant himself emergency powers, redirect tax dollars away from their intended purpose, and begin a new effort to build a medieval vanity project in defiance of lawmakers’ wishes.
I realize many have grown tired of the “imagine if Obama did this” game, but once in a while, the thought experiment has real merit. We can say with near certainty that if the former president were to try a gambit like the one Trump is poised to launch today, Republicans would initiate impeachment proceedings without delay.
The problem with the GOP’s anti-Obama rhetoric wasn’t its accuracy; it was that it was one administration too early.