Machiavellian Politics in the Oval Office

President Obama makes the official announcement reappointing Richard Cordray as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau pending congressional consent.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the recess appointments made by President Obama in 2012 were unconstitutional, reported AP today.  Of course the White House legal team will contend this ruling, and the case will likely see time on the inside of the US Supreme Court, but many conservative and even liberal representatives are supportive of this ruling, and touting the correctness of the court.  Why?

“Allowing the president to define the scope of his own appointment power would eviscerate the Constitution’s separation of powers,” said Chief Judge David Sentelle who was the author of the official opinion of the Appeals Court.

Essentially, the issue lies in the fact that the 112th congress was holding pro forma sessions, often lasting less then three minutes, separated by ‘recesses’ of no more than three days.  Historically, Presidents have the power for make recess appointments for various executive offices when Congress is not in session.  At those times he needs not participate in the advise and consent function of Congress. Those times happen during recesses of months, not days.

The delineation of this issue, and the heart of the outcry against these recess appointments is not explicit in the constitution, but has been traditionally inferred or understood as constitutional policy.

Fox News reports that Press Secretary Jay Carney recognized the presidential appointments as “novel and unprecedented,” though not unconstitutional.

He went on: “It contradicts 150 years of practice by Democratic and Republican administrations. So we respectfully but strongly disagree with the ruling.”

But Senator Orrin Hatch, republican representative from Utah notes that “With this ruling, the D.C. Circuit has soundly rejected the Obama administration’s flimsy interpretation of the law, and (it) will go a long way toward restoring the constitutional separation of powers.

So the lines are drawn at the markedly liberal beginning of Obama’s second term in the Oval Office.  It seems that the President is choosing to implement his liberal agenda without reserve, passing executive orders and supporting recess appointments that at the least are constitutionally contestable.

Is what is legal, also then ethical?  Machiavelli thought so, because the ends justify the means.  Obama has implemented the principle of equifinality as though he were the one Il Principe was written for.

So what the crisis?  In a somewhat surprising turn, the courts seem to have started to stand against his power play.  The head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Richard Cordray may have to step down, and the decision making power of the National Labor Relations Board will be extinguished.

How should Obama deal with this sudden turn in events?  It seems that his administration has chosen denial as their strategy.  Such a strategy worked when the Obama Administration rode out the Obamacare debate.  But is such a strategy wise again?

Such a Machiavellian approach works when a leader is able to gain the majority of the power.  But the issue here concerns separation of power, and power is something that the other branches of the American government will be very sore to acquiesce.

Obama does not have a large majority in the Senate or the House.  Midterm elections are only a year away.  The uncertainty these elections bring to the table could be enough to make this minor political crisis a major turning point for the Obama administration, one that is certainly not marked with opportunity.

The crisis outcome as a result of such a bullhead strategy might be that Obama wins this marginal, Pyrrhic victory.


Associated Press. “Obama presses liberal agenda as he starts 2nd term.” Julie Pace.

Associated Press. “Court: Obama appointments are unconstitutional.” Sam Hananel.

Fox News. “Court opinion throws labor panel rulings, operation into question as White House slams decision.”

Image Source:

Associated Press. “Court: Obama appointments are unconstitutional.” Sam Hananel.

Image of President Barack Obama and Richard Cordray during official appointment.


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