What kind of president will the winner of November’s national popularity contest be? If history is any judge, the nation’s next chief executive, whether Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain, will be something of a monster.
It’s not because either of these men are overtly evil. I very much doubt that Obama or McCain is secretly plotting to create the American Reich after Inauguration Day, no matter what dire warnings are floating around the Internet about the supposed dictatorship to come. But both men are likely to leave the government more powerful and intrusive than they found it, and to do some measure of damage to our liberty.
Well, it’s not so much the president as the presidency. In the nation’s chief executive, we’ve created an office of vast powers — but powers still insufficient to satisfy the even vaster demands we put upon whoever holds that position. From a station of what were once really very limited powers and few defined responsibilities, the presidency has taken on the roles, as Gene Healy describes in his excellent book, The Cult of the Presidency, of "Chief Legislator, Manager of Prosperity, Protector of the Peace, World Leader — and more."
These are impossible responsibilities for any person to fulfill. They are in fact, impossible responsibilities for any human institution, no matter how enormous, to fulfill. But we insist that our presidents try, or at least appear to make the effort. The result, says Dana D.Nelson, author of the equally important Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People, is that "[n]early every president, regardless of party affiliation, has as a candidate denounced the presidential power grabs of the current officeholder. And every president since FDR has attempted to overpower the judicial and legislative branches."
That’s every president — all of them. The dynamics of the office and the demands placed upon it haven’t changed this year, so there’s no reason to assume that President McCain or President Obama will be that singular officeholder who leaves the presidency less powerful than he found it. Indeed, this is the era when some conservative constitutional scholars espouse the idea of the "unitary executive" — an explicit formulation of the increasingly imperial status of the presidency under presidents from both parties. And it’s a year in which Obama’s campaign has evolved the gloss of a cult of personality that promises to gift the candidate with freewheeling power even as it burdens him with superhuman expectations. And let’s not forget pundits like the New York Times‘s David Brooks wheezing that,"What we need in this situation is authority."
No, this is not the year for a modest candidate. This is the year for … Superman.
In fact, "Superman" is exactly what both Healy and Nelson say is expected of the modern president. Coming from very different perspectives — Healy is senior editor at the libertarian Cato Institute, while Nelson would likely describe herself as a progressive and is a professor of English and American studies at Vanderbilt University — these authors have written remarkable parallel analyses of the rise of the imperial presidency. Nelson points to presidential action figures as evidence of the cartoonish superhero attributes we’ve come to expect of presidents. Healy emphasizes a line of movies dating back to the 1930s in which presidents are celebrated for exercising unilateral and even (in the case of 1932’s Gabriel over the White House) supernatural powers to vanquish hardship and evil.
This celebration of the power of one politican wasn’t manufactured in Hollywood or in the offices of a toy company. It came in response to grassroots demands that presidents take on more responsibility than any official of a republic should be permitted to assume, or that any human being could ever shoulder.
"In fact," writes Healy about FDR’s expansion of presidential power, "Well before the war, it had become clear that increasing numbers of Americans looked to the president for personal help in a way that would have seemed peculiar — even dishonorable — to their fathers and grandfathers."
Politicians were all too happy to take advantage of the opportunities provided by cries for presidential intercession. They built up the myth of a special relationship between the people and the "national leader" (a role that was never supposed to adhere to the presidency) despite the clear constitutional role of the House of Representatives in representing the people. Says Nelson, "Significantly, the notion of the mandate suggests that the basis for presidential power comes not through the Constitution but directly through the people. … This idea, combined with the ambiguity of the Constitution itself with regard to the specifics of presidential power, installed a creative new logic that presidents could exploit in defining the office’s scope and reach."
Scholars have been all too happy to drink the imperial Kool Aid. Before ever assuming the office that he would abuse at great cost to American liberty, Woodrow Wilson penned books calling for expanded presidential power. Historians took to celebrating the expansion of the office — and excoriated those who tried to hold to the presidency’s modest scope. "Whether they’re conservative or liberal, writes Healy, "America’s professors prefer presidents who dream big and attempt great things — even when they leave wreckage in their wake."
Healy points to some sickening sentiments voiced in recent years by pundits who regretted the relative peace of the 1990s and seemed excited by the potential offered by the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Two days afterr the world Trade Center’s collapse, Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s Hardball and a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, praised George W. Bush’s good fortune: "Lucky though he was, Bill Clinton never had his shot at greatness. He could lower the jobless rate, balance the budget, and console us after the Oklahoma City bombing. But he never got the opportunity George W. Bush was given: the historic chance to lead. Our American spirit, power and enterprise now stand ready for orders. Only the president can give them."
Oh great. A chance for President Bush to issue orders — we know how well that worked out. But it would have been bad to one degree or another no matter who was in that office. Superhuman responsibility and superhuman power are a terrible combination to hand to or inflict upon any mere mortal.
Unfortunately, but logically, neither Healy nor Nelson has a clear plan for breaking the cycle that has turned every president into an overburdened focus of ridiculous expectations who reaches, in response, for ever greater authority to meet the demands of the office. Nelson asks us all to step "away from the childlike fantasies of complete harmony with each other and the dependencies that presidentialism fosters in us, into a clear-eyed and adult awareness of human limitations and human creativity." To this end she explores several ideas to encourage or require increased citizen participation in democracy, including increased volunteerism, mandatory national service, national initiative and referendum and an extended series of representative councils on the congressional district level. All of them seem intended to make Americans be other than they have been — the fantasists who created the imperial presidency to begin with.
Healy, on the other hand simply concedes that "overweening government and the swollen presidency that inevitably accompanies it are the product of incompatible public demands." He hopes that the skepticism and cynicism toward government of recent years might produce something resembling the Revolutionary-era consensus that the president should not be a stand-in for a king. But today’s skeptics and cynics also handed George W. Bush — however briefly — an approval rating of around 90% after 9/11.
Healy and Nelson shouldn’t be slighted for failing to come up with a solution, though, in their otherwise excellent and timely books. There probably is no solution.
The presidency will continue to grow in power and scope for as long as Americans insist as seeing it as the center of the political universe — or even of the whole universe. It will be a problem so long as the office is loaded with unreasonable power and inhuman expectation. And so long as that is the nature of the office, contenders for White House residency will be politicians who (insanely) think they’re up to the job or else are simply willing to grin and promise everything under the sun.
And that’s why President Barack Obama or President John McCain will certainly be a monster.