Democratically Elected Politicians Following The Law Is Democratic Governance

The United States of America is a democracy, even though the Senate is malapportioned. Sweden is a democracy even though it has a king. Australia is a democracy even though it has a Queen who doesn’t even live in the same country. Switzerland is a democracy even though it relies on referenda much more than normal countries. Germany is a democracy even though it doesn’t use referenda at all. In other words, we refer to a wide range of republics and constitutional monarchies as “democracies” despite huge variance in institutional structures. What these countries all have in common is that governing authority is vested in elected officials who are constrained by the rule of law.

That, I think, is the correct context in which to understand Keith Hennessey’s absurd complaint that there’s something undemocratic about Barack Obama’s search for measures he can take to bolster the economy that don’t require congressional approval. The president is bound by the constitution and by duly enacted legislation. Congress declining to approve presidential initiatives it disapproves of is democracy in action. The president enacting policy changes that congress has empower it to enact is also democracy in action.

The real underlying issue here, as I believe Hennessey understands perfectly well, is that President Obama suffers politically from poor economic conditions. That creates a perverse incentive for his opponents in congress to become unduly reluctant to enact measures that are likely to bolster the economy. It’s difficult to know what to do about this as a general matter, since clearly we’re not going to become a parliamentary republic. But obviously the only rational response for a president faced with an opposition congress and a depressed economy is to try to seize whatever opportunities are legally available to him to bolster the economy. People should be reassured by the fact that presidential action in this regard is very incentive-compatible. President Obama and his team may make mistakes, but they have very strong selfish reasons to seek policy solutions that work. Members of Congress face considerably more mixed incentives.