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The Celebrity Impulse: The Perils of The Imperial Presidency

October 23, 2013

by J. Andrew Zalucky


There are so many stupid things about American politics today that picking just one is kind of like being a kid in a candy store, except that all the candy sucks. But if I had to chose one thing that really lights my nerves on fire, it would the personality cult of the presidency.

While it hasn’t quite reached the idol-worship reminiscent of the 1930’s, the American political consciousness is still very much subject to the impulse that says, above anyone else, the president should embody American governance. In other words, our President should not only preside over the affairs of the state, but that the very agenda of that state should be derived from him specifically, and not from Congress. This represents a continuation of what Arthur Schlesinger called “The Imperial Presidency”. What you get with this is the laughable rhetoric coming from American mass-media:

“The President needs to do more to show leadership and get things done!”

“The President needs to do more to own his healthcare plan and sell it to The American People!”

“The President needs to do more to keep us safe!”

“The President needs to do more to get our economy back on track!”

The President needs to do more!!!

For anyone with a passing familiarity with The Constitution, it takes a lot of twisted logic to make the case for the President to do more than he’s already doing. And by that I mean, why should he usurp even more power from Congress than he already has? For those who have not read it (which is probably a lot of people) allow me to direct you to Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, which lays the powers granted to Congress, NOT the President.

So when you hear someone complain about the tax policy of this or any other President, it’s helpful to remind them that:

The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States;

And, when confronted by those who somehow still think that the President himself should be more aggressive in foreign affairs, you may want to gently state to them that it is Congress‘ responsibility

To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;

To which I’m sure you’ll hear the hysterical reply “B-b-but he’s the Commander in Cheif!!! And I support him because I’m a real American and a Patriot!” This jingoism, common among supporters of both the current and previous administration, is easily dismissed by referring to Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution which confirms that yes, he is the Commander in Chief, but only in cases “when called into the actual service of the United States”.

Called into service by whom?

By Congress. Not by The Weekly Standard, not by opinion polls, and certainly not by ring-kissing, genuflecting cable-TV pundits.

The idea that the President should be the sole guiding force behind governance, issuing edicts which are then passed down to legislative and judicial authorities which by then have become little more than neutered and subservient administrators- sounds a lot like old authoritarian monarchism doesn’t it? This doesn’t even revert us back to the style of governance we threw off in 1776, but resembles much more closely that of Britain before 1688. So when people go around saying that Congress should just let Obama “implement his agenda” simply because he won re-election (!), they are basically telling Congress NOT to do its job. Many of the finest moments in American history are those times when either Congress or the Supreme Court stood up to the encroachments of executive power. July 27, 1974 still resonates as a dark moment for many Americans, as it saw the disgrace of the Presidency mired in the Watergate scandal. But in my mind, the fact that Congress was ready to unseat a President who had clearly abused his power is something to be proud of. The President is not a sainted monarch, he is cut from the same genetic cloth as the rest of us. America has no king, and it does not need a king.

It’s worth stating this very clearly: the election or re-election of a President does not in any way provide him or her with a blank check to implement an agenda. Even the power of making treaties with foreign governments is reigned in by the requirement of ratification by a two-thirds majority in the Senate. Obama’s re-election gives him the power to influence the direction of legislation and represent us as head of state, not to issue unilateral orders to be followed because “the country loves him so much”. To wish for a President to circumvent the power of our direct representatives reflects the wish of grown adults to be treated like children. After all, who cares if your sense of dignity and citizenship are being destroyed- our leader loves us, you love him too don’t you?

This is also why I find it so funny when people refer to The Affordable Care Act as “Obama’s health care plan”, when the plan mostly originated in the Senate Finance Committee (and it shows). This is why, after Scott Brown’s election exploded the Democrats super-majority in the Senate, President Obama had to find a way to make the House Democrats vote for it. In matters of legislation, the President’s primary role is to assess the conflicts between the various rival political factions and through various forms of deal-making and negotiating on behalf of all Americans, forge a meaningful consensus.

Some readers may think I’m somehow slipping into some form of constitutional conservatism here. Not so fast. It’s important to note that, across all western democracies, liberalism was the original champion of constitutional governance and of legislative proceduralism as it stood in opposition to conservative defenders of various absolutist ancien régimes. It still can be this today, if liberals can finally shake off the albatross of top-down, centralizing, managerial Wilsonian-Progressivism. A fair, workable welfare-state and the preservation of civil liberties and civil rights can all be defended on constitutional grounds. By doing so we enable ourselves to be taken seriously, because it means we take the rule of law, and more importantly, our fellow citizens- seriously.

If you want a good summary about the evolution of executive power since President Wilson, I highly recommend you check out George Will’s lecture at Yale from earlier this year:

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