The notion of popular sovereignty is a notion central to American democracy, going back to the revolutionaries who separated from the rule of Britain to form their own country. The American revolutionaries rebelled against a government in which sovereignty resided in the British monarchy, in order to form a government in which sovereignty resided with the people. When sovereignty resided with the British monarch, the monarch could exercise his power regardless of how the people who had to deal with him felt. This led to an outpouring of anger, typified in the sentiment that there should be no taxation without representation. That is, the British monarch should not be able to tax the American colony unilaterally, without negotiating with some representative or representative body of the American people. The people would be able to hold the representative accountable, and so, ultimately, they had the power to govern themselves. If they didn’t like their representative, they could exercise their power to remove the government official. So, on this model, government was legitimate only insofar as it rested on the consent of the governed.
Another good example of popular sovereignty occurs in 1320, in the Declaration of Arbroath issued by the people of Scotland. This declaration made it to clear to the King at the time that he could retain his power as monarch only if he was committed to ridding Scotland of English meddling. If he failed in this charge, the people reserved the right to remove him. So, again, here we have a ruler who rules only to the extent that the people he rules consent to his power.
Popular sovereignty can come in different forms, and it is not as though the founders of America intended to let it go unchecked. For instance, the people can elect a president, but the president holds power for four years. It’s not as though the people can ask for a new vote whenever there is sufficient support, regardless of how much time has elapsed. The same is true of other elected officials, like congressman and women. They are guaranteed a certain amount of time in office, and so their power is not directly contingent upon how people feel about them. But, in the end, the most powerful player in American politics is the American people. Every person with power in the American government will be able to continue to wield power only with the support of a large number of Americans. Popular sovereignty is enshrined in Lincoln’s great Gettysburg Address, where he speaks of a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” The preamble to the Constitution states that “We the people of the United States…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” This has become the standard for democracies around the world. For instance, the constitution of the government of Brazil states that “all power emanates from the people, who exercise it by means of elected representatives or directly as provided by the constitution.”
Which brings me to my main point in this essay, namely, the actions of Barack Obama in the waning days of his presidency. He has been very active in these final days, and we have not seen the end of it. In foreign relations, he has imposed sanctions on Russia in response to claims from the intelligence community that Russia hacked into the e-mails of people in the DNC and released them to the public, in the hopes that Donald Trump would win the election. He has abstained from voting on, and so condoned, a U.N. resolution that targeted Israeli settlements as the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, has stated that there is incontestable evidence that Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry secretly pushed for the development of the resolution. Domestically, Obama has exercised his presidential right to pardon and clemency on behalf of close to 1,500 criminals. He has declared a million or so acres of land in Utah and Nevada as national monuments. Obama is planning on meeting with other Democrats to try to protect one his signature and most controversial items of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, which has to do with healthcare. He has used his executive power to stop oil drilling in the Artic Ocean. He dissolved the National Exit-Entry registration system, which incoming president Donald Trump could have used to track people coming to the country from foreign countries that sponsor terrorism. On top of it all, Obama plans on staying in Washington D.C. after his time as president is over and promises in a recent speech that he will be exercising his right as a citizen and will stand with us every step of the way.
All these moves are meant to make life more difficult for Donald Trump and his team to push across their agenda. Obama is working with desperate energy to cement his ideas into policy. There also seems to be an attempt, in the sanctions with Russia, to put Trump in a possibly politically compromising positions. The problem, though, is that in so doing Obama is infringing upon the popular sovereignty established in our Constitution and central to political thought that formed this nation. Donald Trump was elected by the people of the United States. Trump’s agenda is in many ways the complete opposite of that of Obama. In foreign policy, Trump is strongly pro-Israel, whereas Obama, in spite of the pompous claims on his part and other people in his cabinet, is opposed to Israel. The claims that Russia hacked the DNC are dubious, questioned even by Rolling Stone magazine and Julian Assange, the leader of Wikileaks, which is the organization that disseminated the DNC e-mails. So, it seems the Russian conspiracy theory is actually an attempt to put a roadblock in the way of the Trump administration, which has been sending signals that it expects to build a working relationship (not necessarily a friendship) with Vladimir Putin, the leader of Russia. Whereas Obama took seriously claims of climate scientists that the warming of the earth imperiled all people, Trump and his team doubt these claims and see them as politicized science.
So, we have two drastically different worldviews. Any sensible person has to conclude that the election of Trump was in part a rejection of the Obama presidency. It was clearly a rejection of Hillary Clinton, who would have doubled down on a lot of the Obama legacy. Clinton was someone for whom Obama vigorously campaigned. So, whether you agree with Trump or not, you have to acknowledge that the will of the people is a rejection of Obama and his policies.
Which is why it is wrong for him to aggressively promote his policies, and hinder the work of the incoming administration, in his time as a lame duck president. At this point, Obama is behaving in an autocratic way. Modesty and restraint would suggest that Obama would leave quietly, respecting the decision of the American people in the recent election. It is important to keep in mind that it was not just Trump who was elected. Republicans control both the House and the Senate. 2/3 of the governorships in this country are Republican; the same is true of state legislatures. So, the 2016 election is a resounding rejection of the progressive policies of the Obama administration. Instead of accepting this verdict, though, Obama has become more aggressive about imposing his agenda on the America people and also promises to continue to be a gnat when he transitions from the presidency to being another citizen. This is a violation of the rule of popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty gives people a voice in how they are governed. Being governed is a voluntary choice. Obama has heard that voice, but disregards it.
It is true that he still is president and retains presidential power. But, I think it is within reason to ask him to refrain from aggressive policy-making at this time when he lacks the support of the American people. One might argue that Clinton won the popular vote. This is true. However, the fact that Clinton won the popular vote only means that she has more support in major population centers. People’s voting behavior tends to vary by region. California is heavily democratic, as are cities like Philadelphia and New York. A lot of people live in these places. If elections were decided by the popular vote, these centers would always get their interests heard, but the interests of other people in the country would not be represented. And the interests of farmers in Kansas, truck-drivers in Ohio, and religious leaders in Louisiana are very different from actors in Los Angeles and academics in New York City. The thing is that all these people are Americans and the electoral college allows all of them to have adequate representation in the presidential election. Furthermore, the objective of the presidential campaign was not to win the popular vote. It is not fair to judge Trump by the popular vote, since this was not the objective. If it were, his campaign style would have been different. Judging the election by the popular vote is like judging a game of baseball by the number of hits, not runs, or a game of football by the number of yards.
In sum, it is clear that Barack Obama is showing a lack of grace as he leaves office. Even if you support his policies, I think you have to oppose the aggressiveness with which he is promoting them. Nothing he does now will have lasting impact. All it’s going to do is to make it harder for Trump to keep his campaign promises. If Trump fails to keep his campaign promises, then it will be harder for him to maintain power, and liberals might hope that they can reclaim the presidency in just four years. So, Obama is disrespecting the will of the people in the name of retaining power on behalf of his party. I don’t think any American, liberal or conservative, should be comfortable with this behavior.