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Clinton and Obama Struggle for Power


Many Americans are spellbound by the historic contest for the Democratic presidential nomination between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Forgetting the political context, it is indeed something spectacular, even inspiring. A woman and a black man have reached a pinnacle that just a few years ago seemed impossibly far off.

If it were happening outside politics, it would be something to appreciate.

But we cant forget the political context, and its the nature of that context that should keep us from truly rejoicing in Clintons and Obamas achievements.

When we strip away from the process they are engaged in the democratic mythology and red, white, and blue bunting, we are left with the spectacle of two people vying for raw power. They say they want to lead and inspire. What they really want to do is rule us.

This is a contest to determine who will decide how to spend a significant part of our incomes, who will make war or peace, and who will achieve his or her vision by manipulating us with carrots and sticks.

There was a time when the people saw a president as little more than a clerk. He saw that the laws passed by Congress were executed. Yes, he was commander in chief of the military, but that only meant he directed the army after Congress declared war. He certainly couldnt take the country into war on his own. The express powers of the presidency described in the Constitution were seen as rather meager, and the people liked it that way.

Obviously, the idea of what a president should be has changed radically. How much so is the subject of Gene Healys new book, The Cult of the Presidency: Americas Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power (Cato Institute).

The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws, Healy writes in a book excerpt reprinted in Reason.. 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 Americas shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. Hes also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.

Lots of presidents have encouraged this way of thinking of the office, especially Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt. But every man who held the office in the second half of the 20th century has done so. Maybe they thought it was necessary for the good for the country. If so, it shows only how little they understand the individual and social benefits of freedom and the free market. Some would say that society today is too complex for Jeffersonian notions about freedom. On the contrary, the more complex society is, the more it needs government to stay out of its way.

More likely, those who have worked to inflate the office were driven by pure ambition. They were determined to make their mark on history, and the hell with our freedom.

George W. Bush has taken this up a notch with his Unitary Executive Theory, under which he may on his own invade and occupy countries, ignore congressional restrictions on his power, wiretap without a warrant, authorize CIA torture, send suspected terrorists to other countries to be tortured, and hold the people he declares enemy combatants indefinitely without trial.

The presidency now is an office with virtually open-ended powers. All the officeholder needs is a crisis to justify new authority, and theres never been a shortage of crises, whether economic or foreign in nature.

This is the backdrop to the historic power struggle between Clinton and Obama. Neither has condemned the blank-check presidency as a threat to the American people. Neither has pledged to forswear autocratic powers. On the contrary, both have indicated that they will be activist presidents on the domestic and foreign fronts. So has John McCain.

As the great political philosopher Peter Townshend said, Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.