The Roman Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar, according to folklore, sang and played the lyre while Rome was burning in 64 A.D. It is an image that has lived on through the ages, symbolizing a troubled leader dallying during times of immediate crisis.
Although President Obama is no Nero, he now can be cited for focusing on little things while a larger, unsecure world looms outside.
History, therefore, may not be so kind to Obama when it reviews his decision to fiddle with regulatory minutiae when there is so much mayhem in the world. Just a few days ago, the president inserted himself into a proceeding at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to "open up set top boxes to competition." Moreover, Obama directed every federal agency to report back to him on their programs to promote competition in the marketplace.
Just to be clear, at a time when ISIS is ascendant, when terror is rampant, when North Korea is batty and Russia is flexing, when crime rocks our cities, when the economy is slowing and when race relations are at their lowest, the president has time to be concerned about America’s set-top boxes?
Cable set-top boxes. Really? Come on, man.
The president’s action presents a host of troubling issues that are bigger than the act itself.
First, he is interfering in the decision of an independent federal agency, which might be seen as contrary to the separation of powers. Second, he is seeking to influence the commercial market under the banner of advancing competition. Third, and most curiously, doesn't Mr. Obama have more presidential things to do than to worry about the cost of our cable set-top boxes? I mean, isn't there a rogue terrorist, a loose nuke, or a cop-killer on the run? What about America’s place in the world, at the very least?
Of course, it is perfectly reasonable and lawful for the president to have a position on a matter of public policy.
The problem comes when he directs a supposedly independent federal agency — the FCC — to deliver a specific outcome. In this instance, it is a position favored by technology darlings who have found regular refuge in the Eisenhower (Old) Executive Office Building under the Obama Administration. It also is a decision with dramatic financial and commercial implications shifting fortunes of multi-billion dollar private industry, where the government has little business regulating. Beyond thumb on the scale, this is tap-dancing on the scale.
“We are a government of laws, not of men,” advised John Adams in 1774. Sadly, President Obama has scorned over two hundred years of American tradition by unilaterally dictating a matter rightfully left to the legislative and regulatory process. After all, monarchical deliberations were eschewed from the beginning of the republic and they have not found favor since.
In a series of executive branch actions, the president decreed that the federal government was now in the business of affirmatively creating competition through its policies. He has directed all federal agencies to report back to him on what measures they are taking to create competition.
While competition is a great and desirable thing, it is best left to the markets and private sector to determine, rather than the federal government. The government's role is to make sure that market forces are not stifling competition; its role is not to artificially create competition through regulation. This is in itself, anti-competitive.
This is not the first time Mr. Obama has veered from his constitutional lane, especially on matters involving our nation’s communications services. The president twisted the arm of chairman Tom Wheeler in 2015, forcing him into an about-face on Title II regulation of the Internet. Given the seeming popularity of that decision, Obama has now doubled down on his influence over the FCC, all but rubber stamping the FCC’s intent to save consumers from set-top box tyranny.
Ironically, both of these decisions have a good chance of being reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit or Congress, or both.
Beyond the procedural posturing that may occur over this action, there is a bigger principle at play. At a time when the nation’s collective attention is focused on hotly contested presidential primaries, the president has developed a case of myopia.
He is collecting a lot of little marbles while the big rocks remain.
With a scant nine months left in his presidency, Obama is fiddling with our set-top boxes while the world around him is burning.
Adonis Hoffman is chairman of Business in the Public Interest and adjunct professor of communication, culture & technology at Georgetown University. He is the author of Doing Good — the New Rules of Corporate Responsibility, Conscience and Character.