Cato’s Gene Healy has penned a book titled The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power. In it, Healy discusses how executive power has grown substantially throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st Century. He contrasts this state with the Founders’ vision for the office of chief executive and with how the office was executed through the end of the 19th Century.
To get a sampling of what can be found in the book you can check out this Reason Magazine article. The article is over 4,700 words long, so it’s not a quick read. But it is provocative and interesting.
Having just escaped the grasp of what they viewed as tyrannical monarchy, the Founders abhorred the idea of a president that would appear imperial. The president was to steer clear of influencing legislation, but was obligated to run the government per legislation. The office was to be similar to that of a prime minister stripped of legislative powers and responsibilities.
Healy suggests that from the nation’s inception and on through the 19th Century, the presidency’s powers were quite benign compared to the expansive powers wielded by today’s chief executive, even when taking Lincoln into account. How did we get from Washington’s refusal to even broach the topic of legislative matters to where we are today?
It began, asserts Healy, with Theodore Roosevelt (the first “celebrity president”), was enhanced by Wilson, and was finally cemented firmly into place by FDR. By the mid 1960s, says Healy, the presidency had taken on an aura of divinity on the order of the old monarchies. Expansion of executive power and persona suffered a setback in the Vietnam/Watergate era, but it has since made a roaring comeback.
Many of the men that have served as president, along with movers and shakers in their administrations, have deliberately sought to grow executive power. But this is a two-way street, claims Healy. The fact is that a large majority of American voters have bought into the “delusion” of a good, wise, and powerful near deity as our chief executive — a demigod that is “our national father or mother, responsible for our economic well-being, our physical safety, and even our sense of belonging.” Politicians are trying to respond to our demands.
Think about it. After a couple of decades of implementing some checks on executive power, Americans demanded in the face of 9/11 a president that has sufficient power to make us safe and to destroy our enemies. Hurricane Katrina was another turning point in expansion of executive power. Healy writes, “To be sure, the administration deserved plenty of blame for bungling the disaster relief tasks it had the power to carry out. But it soon became clear that the public held the Bush team responsible for performing feats above and beyond its legal authority.”
This process necessarily centralizes power. It has grown the size and power of the federal government, while the business world has significantly decentralized power. The recent wrangling over various checks on executive power has been about requirements are essentially minimal and mostly feckless. President Bush has repeatedly requested and gotten increased powers, including “enhanced authority for domestic use of the military.” Congress has, for the most part, not only acquiesced, but enthusiastically granted expanded executive powers.
We demand that the president be responsible for all kinds of things for which the office was never designed. It only follows that the president must have power equal to the responsibility we demand of him. It is more than simple coincidence that our distrust of government has grown along with our demand for more executive responsibility. I think it is also more than coincidental that Americans’ faith in human political icons has grown as their faith in deity has declined.
What we don’t get is that when our president fails to fulfill our wild expectations, we only assume that he is doing a poor job. It never occurs to us that it is the job that is the problem. The system, we assume, would be just fine if it weren’t run by inept or evil people. Somehow, we can’t come to grips with the fact that our “system, with its unhealthy, unconstitutional concentration of power,” is destined to produce poor results.
So every few years we cast about for a new great savior to come in and rescue us. And both political parties make bargains with the devil in the name of political expediency, because the stakes are so high.
Can anyone objectively think that any of the three current major candidates for the presidency can satisfy what American voters have come to demand of their president? Unfortunately, it seems that we will not begin to return the presidency to its proper scope until some major scandal, policy error, or calamity shakes the faith Americans have in “the spellbinding cult of the presidency.”