Between now and the November elections, Barack Obama and John McCain will each spend millions of dollars to describe his vision to the American people. From ridding the world of evil to making sure our credit card payments are properly recorded, no task is too sublime or too trivial for the candidates’ attention — or voter expectations.
And there’s the rub.
The claim of expansive presidential capability to solve the ills of mankind is more than simply over-promising and under-delivering. A president of whom great deeds are expected will demand — or seize — great power to tackle those expectations. The context of the political conventions provides an opportunity to reconsider the nature of the presidency and judge candidates not by the eloquence of their rhetoric or the expansiveness of their policies but by the standard of the U.S. Constitution.
The vision of president who is a combination “guardian angel, shaman and Supreme Warlord of the Earth” is so pervasive that Americans are reduced to weighing campaign rhetoric without the balance of context. Partisans will be praising, journalists will be reporting and pundits analyzing what Obama and McCain would do as president. Doing so, they miss the key question: What should a president do?
“The Constitution’s architects never conceived of the president as the man in charge of national destiny,” says the Cato Institute’s Gene Healy, author of “The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.” For them the very notion of ‘national leadership’ raised the possibility of authoritarian rule by a demagogue ready to create an atmosphere of crisis in order to enhance his power.”
The War on Terror, the Global Warming Crisis, the Health Care Crisis, the Energy Crisis, the Education Crisis all have resulted in expansion of federal and presidential authority, and still Americans expect the government and the president to do more.
It’s more than a little ironic that the alternatives we are offered to the “imperial presidency” of George W. Bush are Obama’s “messianic presidency” of hope and national transformation and McCain’s vision of presidential authority “liberally interpreted.” So pervasive is the public conception of a superhero president that voters unwittingly weigh campaign rhetoric and policy proposals without the balance of constitutional context. They do so at their peril.
The men who would be … what?
Announcing his intent to run for president of the United States, Obama described his campaign to the gathered faithful as “the vehicle of your hopes, and your dreams.” He was not in the race, he said, “just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation.”
“I want to win that next battle — for justice and opportunity,” Obama said. “I want to win that next battle — for better schools, and better jobs, and health care for all. I want us to take up the unfinished business of perfecting our union, and building a better America.”
More than just outlining an ambitious agenda, Obama’s words reveal an expansive view presidential authority one would be hard-pressed to construct from reading the chief executive’s job description in the Article II of the U.S. Constitution. But not to be out done in either the sublime or the trivial of expansive presidential authority, McCain channels Teddy Roosevelt, whom he admires, because he “liberally interpreted the constitutional authority of the [presidency]” and “nourished the soul of a great nation.”
“Under my [education] reforms, we will entrust both the funds and the responsibilities where they belong, in the office of the school principal,” McCain told the NAACP. “I intend to give [spending] discretion to public school principals,” he said.
Don’t waste time looking in the Constitution for the clause that gives the president of the United States authority to write job descriptions for elementary school principals in Woodbury (or mange curriculum or set educational standards and objectives). It isn’t there. No surprise. From the sublime of nation-transforming, validating individual hopes and dreams and nourishing the national soul, to the minutia of helping businesses create flexible work opportunities and schools create virtual education opportunities, both Obama and McCain are running for a presidency that would be all but unrecognizable to the framers of the Constitution.
Obama and McCain promise to create jobs and grow the economy on cheap and dependable sources of energy, close the achievement gap and educate all of the nation’s children, provide security at home while spreading liberty abroad, nourish our national soul and inspire us with the audacity to hope. A sharp contrast indeed with George Washington’s humble admission in his first inaugural address that “the magnitude and difficulty of the trust to which the voice of my country called me … could not but overwhelm with despondence one … peculiarly conscious of his own deficiencies.”
Campaigning in 1912 against the progressivism of McCain’s role model Teddy Roosevelt and Democratic progressive Woodrow Wilson, a more modest William Howard Taft metaphorically cautioned that the president “cannot make the rain to fall, the sun to shine, or the crops to grow.” Obama and McCain in contrast actually propose to manage the temperature of the planet within percentage points of a degree.
Wither drifts the Congress
It is too easy and too perilous to write off the claims of presidential candidates as overblown political rhetoric. As Healy points out in “The Cult of the Presidency,” the constitutional presidency was designed to stand against the popular will as often as not. The Constitution gives the president veto power to restrain Congress when it passes laws that overstep constitutional bounds. The modern presidency, on the other hand, has become the “tribune of the people,” promising transformative action and demanding the power to carry it out. And Congress complies.
We need look no further for evidence of congressional abdication than the Iraq war. Regardless of one’s position on the necessity of the war, the facts are clear: We have one of the most unpopular presidents ever according to the polls, fighting an unpopular war and a Congress composed of the opposition party that complains incessantly but nonetheless shies away from exercise of its constitutional war power authority and obligation. The president is “Commander and Chief,” but it is Congress that has the sole power to declare war and who controls the appropriations for war. But Congress is too cowered by the magnitude of the presidency (certainly not the president himself) to act.
In the everyday affairs, Congress also abdicates its constitutional obligations to the executive branch. It delegates authority and dodges responsibility. Congress delegates its legislative authority by authorizing unelected bureaucrats to create regulations for which individual congresspersons take no responsibility when they prove detrimental or unpopular. Congress delegates its control of the public purse to those same bureaucrats with similar results; individual congresspersons selectively criticize runaway spending without acknowledging that ultimately spending is constitutionally solely under their control.
We have met the enemy …
It is opposition to expansive view of the government in general and the presidency in particular that motivates the Ron Paul http://www.campaignforliberty.com/ phenomenon. His campaign for president and the staying power of the people he’s brought into the political system have raised fundamental questions about the nature and role of government (not to mention the actual commitment of the Republican Party to its heritage of limited government and individual freedom). And while as a presidential candidate Paul campaigned to return to a constitutional view of the presidency, he recognizes that such a real change must be driven by the people.
“I could be president tomorrow, and little would really change,” he said in a conversation at the state GOP convention in Rochester, Minn., this spring. “If I tried to govern by the constitution, I’d probably be impeached,” he joked.
“Unless there is a change in attitude among the people, we won’t get back to limited government,” he said turning serious. “That’s what my campaign is about. The people who turned out today [for Paul’s speech outside the GOP convention hall] are the leaders of that change.”
Healy says that there is a quiet sort of valor voters ought to look for in a president.
“True political heroism rarely pounds its chest or pounds the pulpit, preaching rainbows and uplift, and promising to redeem the world through military force,” he writes. “A truly heroic president is one who appreciates the virtues of restraint — who is bold enough to act when action is necessary, yet wise enough, humble enough to refuse powers he ought not have. That is the sort of presidency we need now more than ever. And we won’t get that kind of presidency until we demand it.”
The question is, “Will the American voter demand it?” The Democratic and Republican conventions will provide insight into the answer.