The inevitable presidential power trip
What kind of president will the winner of November's election be? If history is any judge, the nation's next chief executive, whether Democrat Barack Obama, or Republican John McCain, will be hungry for more power than the office already has.
It's not because of peculiar flaws in either of these men. In fact, 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 placed upon the office. From a once modest post, the presidency has taken on the roles, as Gene Healy, senior editor at the Cato Institute, describes in his 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. But we insist that our presidents at least appear to make the effort. The result, says Dana D. Nelson, a professor of American studies at Vanderbilt University and author of "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."
The demands placed upon the presidency 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 office 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. And it's a year in which Obama's campaign has evolved a cult of personality that promises to gift the candidate with freewheeling power even as it burdens him with huge expectations.
No, this is not the year for a modest candidate. This is the year for ... Superman.
"Superman" is what both Healy and Nelson say is expected of the modern president. 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 evil.
This celebration of presidential power is rooted in grassroots demands that presidents take on more responsibility than any official of a republic should be permitted to assume.
"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 comply. 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). 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."
Historians took to heaping White House strongmen with praise. "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 pundits' bizarre celebration of chieftain-presidents, including this post-9/11 gem by MSNBC's Chris Matthews: "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."
We see where President Bush's leadership took us. But it would have been much the same 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.
Neither Healy nor Nelson has a clear plan for breaking the cycle that has made every president a focus of ridiculous expectations who reaches, in turn, for ever greater authority. That's not a surprise. There probably is no easy solution.
The presidency will continue to grow in power and scope for as 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 promise everything under the sun.
And that's why President Barack Obama or President John McCain will certainly be more than a little power-mad.
This column was published November 3, 2008 by The East Valley Tribune