The Cult of the Presidency: Who Can We Blame for the Radical Expansion of Executive Power? Look No Further Than You and Me

By Healy, Gene | Reason, June 2008 | Go to article overview

The Cult of the Presidency: Who Can We Blame for the Radical Expansion of Executive Power? Look No Further Than You and Me


Healy, Gene, Reason


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"I AIN'T RUNNING FOR preacher," Republican presidential candidate Phil Gramm snarled to religious right activists in 1995 when they urged him to run a campaign stressing moral themes. Several months later, despite Gramm's fund raising prowess, the Texas conservative finished a desultory fifth place in the Iowa caucuses and quickly dropped out of the race. Since then, few candidates have made Gramm's mistake. Serious contenders for the office recognize that the role and scope of the modern presidency cannot be so narrowly confined. Today's candidates are running enthusiastically for national preacher--and much else besides.

In the revival tent atmosphere of Barack Obama's campaign, the preferred hosanna of hope is "Yes we can!" We can, the Democratic front-runner promises, not only create "a new kind of politics" but "transform this country," "change the world," and even "create a Kingdom right here on earth." With the presidency, all things are possible.

Even though Republican nominee John McCain tends to eschew rainbows and uplift in favor of the grim satisfaction that comes from serving a "cause greater than self-interest," he too sees the presidency as a font of miracles and the wellspring of national redemption. A president who wants to achieve greatness, McCain suggests, should emulate Teddy Roosevelt, who "liberally interpreted the constitutional authority of the office" and "nourished the soul of a great nation." President George W. Bush, when passing the GOP torch to his former rival in March, declared that the Arizona senator "will bring determination to defeat an enemy and a heart big enough to love those who hurt." Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, suggests she is "ready on Day I to be commander in chief of our economy."

The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He--or she--is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America's shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He's also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.

This messianic campaign rhetoric merely reflects what the office has evolved into after decades of public clamoring. The vision of the president as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous it goes virtually unnoticed. Americans, left, right, and other, think of the "commander in chief" as a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes. And with great responsibility comes great power.

It's difficult for 21st-century Americans to imagine things any other way. The United States appears stuck with an imperial presidency, an office that concentrates enormous power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top. Americans appear deeply ambivalent about the results, alternately cursing the king and pining for Camelot. But executive power will continue to grow, and threats to civil liberties increase, until citizens reconsider the incentives we have given to a post that started out so humble.

Minimum Leader

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The modern vision of the presidency couldn't be further from the Framers' view of the chief executive's role. In an age long before distrust of power was condemned as cynicism, the Founding Fathers designed a presidency of modest authority and limited responsibilities. The Constitution's architects never conceived of the president as the man in charge of national destiny. They worked amid the living memory of monarchy, and 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 constitutional office they designed gave the president an important role, but he'd have "no particle of spiritual jurisdiction," the 69th essay of The Federalist Papers tells us.

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