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The Cult of Executive Power


The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power
by Gene Healy (Cato Institute, 2008); 356 pages.

Just in time for the 2008 presidential campaign comes the book we need to get Americans to think sensibly about the office that the candidates are so furiously seeking.

In The Cult of the Presidency, Cato Institute scholar Gene Healy looks at the powers of the presidency today in comparison with the office in the past and concludes that we are immeasurably worse off because the presidency has taken on powers never imagined by the nation’s Founders. Most Americans expect the president to be a Superman, doing everything from consoling them after tragedies to smashing terrorism, from guaranteeing that every child is well educated to managing the economy. Healy shows us that Americans have made a mistake of monumental proportions in creating these absurd expectations and investing the president with almost unlimited powers.

Under the Constitution, the president was supposed to have little authority. Over time, though, presidents have been given powers (by the legislative and judicial branches) and have simply seized powers far beyond those given under the Constitution. Few Americans think it strange that the president can unilaterally embroil them in war or declare vast tracts of land to be untouchable for economic development. They’re accustomed to presidents who speak as if they have almost magical powers to do good things for them. Indeed, most Americans would look askance at a presidential candidate who said that he had no great vision for improving the country, but would simply enforce the laws and uphold the Constitution as his oath of office requires.

This imperial view of the presidency is strongly reinforced by the intelligentsia, Healy shows. He refers to Clinton Rossiter’s 1956 book, The American Presidency, which outlines 10 roles that a president should fulfill. Half of them are not to be found in the Constitution: world leader, protector of the peace, chief legislator, manager of national prosperity, and voice of the people. As Healy puts it, the president is now expected to be “America’s shrink and social worker and our national talk-show host. He’s a guide for the perplexed, a friend to the downtrodden — and he’s also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.”

Scholars and pundits keep telling Americans that a “great” president is one who leaves his mark through big accomplishments, foreign and domestic. Great presidents fight wars (but only “good” ones). They push through sweeping “social” legislation and make creative use of executive orders to right as many wrongs as possible. On the other hand, a “do-nothing” president is one who quietly presides over peace and leaves the people alone to pursue their own objectives. Such a president would be branded a failure by our deep thinkers.

Healy takes us through the history of the presidency with regard to the way the office has been viewed, both by presidents themselves and by the public. Washington did not think that he held a great and important position, but instead thought of himself merely as “chief magistrate” of the country. He had no legislative agenda, seeing it as the function of Congress to enact laws. He very rarely spoke in public. Much as Americans may revere “The Father of Our Country,” if Washington were the president today, most would call him lazy and uninspired.

That modest and deferential conception of the presidency held for more than a century after Washington left it — with a few notable exceptions. Lincoln greatly expanded the power of the office during the Civil War, but afterwards presidents reverted to the previous view. For example, presidents did not use natural disasters as excuses to engage in showy displays of false compassion and to buy popularity with federal disaster relief. Exemplifying that approach was Grover Cleveland, who vetoed an appropriation by Congress to buy seed for farmers in Texas who were suffering from a drought. Cleveland knew there was no constitutional warrant for such spending and would not violate his oath of office just to bask in some fleeting popularity. If the president were to take that attitude today, he’d be crucified in the media for his lack of concern for people’s hardships. And imagine the attack ads!

The rise of the omnipotent president

This gets at the heart of Healy’s book. Americans have embraced the silly notion that the president is supposed to do a host of things that he can’t (such as manage the economy), that he shouldn’t (such as get the country involved in military conflicts around the world), or that are useless (such as visiting the scene of every natural disaster). In this, the people have been retrogressing from a mature understanding that the presidency has limits, to a childish view of the president as a saintly genius with boundless powers.

More than any other, it was Theodore Roosevelt who broke away from the modest, constitutional model of the presidency. TR (as he liked to be called) was a swaggering, energetic man with no patience for either legal or traditional restraints. He had big, “progressive” ideas and wanted action rather than deliberation. He was not content just to enforce existing laws, but wanted to be the one to push for new laws — and to accomplish by executive order anything that Congress couldn’t be bullied into doing. Many, but by no means all, Americans were captivated by his aggressive approach to the presidency.

The succeeding presidency of William Howard Taft was a respite from the tornado of Roosevelt, and Roosevelt hated it. Taft simply didn’t have the persona to lead the nation. He was content to leave things pretty much alone. That old-fashioned attitude so bothered Roosevelt that he ran a third-party candidacy in 1912 that defeated Taft and saddled the United States with Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson’s two terms were an unmitigated disaster for the country. He was enthralled with progressive thinking that saw the traditional American individualism as a relic of the past. Wilson and the “Progressives” wanted to force the people into a collectivist, highly regimented unit that would achieve great things — with Wilson calling out the orders, of course. After he engineered America’s entry into World War I, the power of the presidency took a huge upward leap with the seizure of the railroads and the creation of numerous authoritarian agencies such as the War Industries Board.

Wilson was intoxicated with power. He believed so fervently in his own righteousness that he would never admit the possibility of error. His view of the presidency was one that would have been appalling to Washington or Jefferson. It was like having a king again.

Luckily, Wilson’s inflated ideas about the role of the president didn’t take hold with most Americans. In 1920, Warren Harding was elected on a platform calling for a return to “normalcy.” The “Progressives” were despondent when the Harding administration undid Wilson’s handiwork by releasing political prisoners, cutting taxes, returning private property to its owners, and abolishing the new bureaucracies. It made them even more despondent to see that the people enjoyed their increased freedom. The rubes! Didn’t they understand that the imperial presidency was for their own good?

No. They liked peace, freedom, and the resulting prosperity. Eight years of Wilson, far from selling America on the need for a Superman president, had left most people with a bad aftertaste. Americans were still mostly a people who wanted government to leave them alone. Alas, disaster was just around the corner.

When the Depression struck during Herbert Hoover’s presidency, it was at first no worse than other recessions Americans had endured, but Hoover’s mentality was geared toward activism. He thought it was the president’s job to set the economy right rather than to await free-market adjustments. His meddling made matters much worse, setting the stage for the silver-tongued Franklin D. Roosevelt. He reassured the desperate people that he could restore prosperity with a brilliant, innovative set of programs. All the people had to do was to trust him, and most did. Like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Roosevelt led Americans away from their historic skepticism about government power and into a mystical belief that they could — and indeed must — rely on the president to direct their lives.

Roosevelt’s presidency fried the egg. There was no going back to the old view of the presidency after his reign. Even though Americans have at times shown some selective disapproval of presidential excesses (especially under Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon), most of them unthinkingly accept the premises of the imperial presidency. Those beliefs are carefully cultivated by an array of statist intellectuals, Healy observes. Although they don’t all agree on exactly how presidential power should be used — some conservatives insist on “national greatness” projects, while liberals demand “social justice” crusades — they are united in their opinion that a president who has no inspired vision for remaking the world would be a disaster.

Room for optimism?

Is there any hope? In his final chapter, Healy tries to end on an optimistic note. I’m afraid, however, that it doesn’t ring true. It’s as if a composer had written a long, dark, turbulent symphony in C minor but tried to end with a bright C-major chord.

One of the straws at which Healy grasps is the fact that voters often dish out significant losses to the party in power in mid-term elections. “It’s almost as if the voters subconsciously regret their prior endorsement of presidential heroism, and decide to punish the figure they just rewarded,” he writes.

The trouble is that that isn’t always true, since the incumbent party sometimes gains seats in mid-term elections, but even if it were true it doesn’t prove anything. All the voters do is to alternate between slightly different brands of heroism. If they were really put off by the endless parade of presidential excesses, they would stop electing candidates who promise them everything and pledge to increase government control over people’s lives. To find a president not cut from the “I have big plans for you” cloth, you have to go back to Eisenhower.

Healy also points to the success of satirical programs such as The Daily Show that mock politicians incessantly. All right — many people enjoy watching Jon Stewart making fun of Republicans and Democrats. There is, however, a huge gap between that and an understanding that political power per se is a dangerous thing. I can’t see that the popularity of programs satirizing politicians is a harbinger of eroding support for the imperial presidency.

The strongest argument against Healy’s optimism is the depressingly thin support for Ron Paul’s candidacy in the 2008 primary campaign. Offered a choice between a bevy of big government defenders and a lone advocate of an unambitious, Jeffersonian theory of the presidency, only a small percentage of voters went for the latter. Most Americans evidently believe that they need a president with powers only a little less sweeping than those of Louis XIV. Alas, the cult of the presidency, so carefully cultivated by the opponents of individual liberty, shows no sign of weakening.

Those of us who would like to see another president like Warren Harding have an awful lot of persuasive work to do.

The strained optimism of that final chapter doesn’t detract from the book, though. Gene Healy has accurately described the malignant tumor that threatens us. That tumor — the idea that in the modern world the president must have and exercise vast powers — will be excised only when Americans stop believing in the false ideas that underlie it. The Cult of the Presidency will help.

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    George C. Leef is the research director of the George C. Leef is the research director of the Martin Center for Academic Renewal in Raleigh, North Carolina. in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was previously the president of Patrick Henry Associates, East Lansing, Michigan, an adjunct professor of law and economics, Northwood University, and a scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.