The Cult of the Presidency
Who can we blame for the radical expansion of executive power? Look no further than you and me.
"I ain't running for preacher," Republican presidential candidate Phil Gramm snarled to religious right activists in 1995 when they urged him to run a campaign stressing moral themes. Several months later, despite Gramm's fund raising prowess, the Texas conservative finished a desultory fifth place in the Iowa caucuses and quickly dropped out of the race. Since then, few candidates have made Gramm's mistake. Serious contenders for the office recognize that the role and scope of the modern presidency cannot be so narrowly confined. Today's candidates are running enthusiastically for national preacher-and much else besides.
The constitutional office they designed gave the president an important role, but he'd have "no particle of spiritual jurisdiction," the 69th essay of The Federalist Papers tells us. In Federalist No. 48, James Madison assured Americans that under the proposed Constitution the "executive magistracy is carefully limited, both in the extent and the duration of its powers." Indeed, the very pseudonym the Federalist's authors chose, "Publius," says something about how hostile Founding-generation Americans were to the idea of one-man rule. Publius Valerius Poplicola, a hero of the Roman revolution in the 5th century B.C., was famous in part for passing a law providing that anyone suspected of seeking kingship could be summarily executed.
Never were constitutional limitations more essential than when it came to using military power. Early Americans were no strangers to national security threats; in 1787 the U.S. was a small frontier republic on the edge of a continent occupied by periodically hostile great powers and Indian marauders. Yet the Constitution limited emergency powers and sharply rejected the idea that the president was above the law. "In no part of the Constitution," Madison wrote in 1793, "is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department." In any other arrangement, "the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man." That sentiment crossed party lines. As Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in 1801, "the whole powers of war being by the Constitution of the United States vested in Congress, the acts of that body can alone be resorted to as our guides."
Today Americans expect their president to pound Teddy Roosevelt's "bully pulpit," whipping the electorate into a frenzy to harness power against perceived threats. But the Framers viewed that sort of behavior as fundamentally illegitimate. In fact, the president wasn't even supposed to be a popular leader. As presidential scholar Jeffrey K. Tulis has pointed out, in the Federalist the term leader is nearly always used pejoratively; the essays by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in defense of the Constitution begin and end with warnings about the perils of populist leadership. The first Federalist warns of "men who have overturned the liberties of republics" by "paying obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants," and the last Federalist raises the specter of a "military despotism" orchestrated by "a victorious demagogue."
Instead of stoking public demands for action, the chief magistrate was expected to resist "the transient impulses of the people" and use his veto to keep Congress within its constitutional bounds. That role didn't require much speechifying. Early presidents rarely spoke directly to the public; from George Washington through Andrew Jackson, they averaged little more than three speeches per year, with those mostly confined to ceremonial addresses. In his first year in office, by comparison, President Clinton delivered 600.
In the early State of the Union addresses to Congress, presidents knew better than to adopt an imperious tone. After his third SOTU, Washington wrote that "motives of delicacy" had deterred him from "introducing any topic which relates to legislative matters, lest it should be suspected that [I] wished to influence the question" before Congress. Yet the deference shown by Washington and his successor John Adams didn't go quite far enough for our third president, Thomas Jefferson, who thought their practice of speaking before the legislature in person smacked of the British king's "Speech From the Throne." Jefferson instead inaugurated a new tradition of delivering the annual message in writing. For 112 years, that Jeffersonian tradition held sway, until the power-hungry Woodrow Wilson delivered his first State of the Union in person.
The 19th century did see presidents occasionally taking independent action of enormous consequences: Jefferson purchased Louisiana without congressional approval, Madison seized West Florida in 1810, Andrew Jackson governed as an irritable populist, and Abraham Lincoln expanded presidential power dramatically throughout the course of the cataclysmic Civil War. Yet taken as a whole, the 19th-century presidency was a pale shadow of the plebiscitary office we know today.
In a 2002 study tracking word usage through two centuries of SOTUs and inaugural addresses, political scientist Elvin T. Lim noted that in the first decades under the Constitution presidents rarely mentioned poverty, and the word help did not even appear until 1859. Nor did early presidents subscribe to the modern notion that it's all "about the children"; they rarely even mentioned the little buggers. But Lim found that "Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton made 260 of the 508 references to children in the entire speech database, invoking the government's responsibility to and concern for children in practically every public policy area."
George Washington did mention kids in his seventh annual message, lamenting "the frequent destruction of innocent women and children" by Indian raiders. But that was a far cry from Bill Clinton in 1997, who declared in the State of the Union that "we must also protect our children by standing firm in our determination to ban the advertising and marketing of cigarettes that endanger their lives."
One wonders how some of the more irascible presidents of old would have reacted at the sight of a grown man burbling about childish necessities to the prospective national father. Yet under the hot lights of the 1992 campaign, Ross Perot said he'd cross his heart and take Walthall's pledge to meet America's infantile needs, whatever those were. Bill Clinton, being Bill Clinton, pandered. And Bush 41 spluttered through his answer thusly:
"I mean I-I think, in general, let's talk about these-let's talk about these issues; let's talk about the programs, but in the presidency a lot goes into it. Caring is…that's not particularly specific; strength goes into it, that's not specific; standing up against aggression, that's not specific in terms of a program. So I, in principle, I'll take your point and think we ought to discuss child care-or whatever else it is." That wasn't just an example of the Bush family's famous locution problems; it's hard not to stammer when faced with the limitless and bewildering demands the public places on the presidency.
How did we go from a reticent constitutional officer to the modern commander in chief, a figure who continually shifts back and forth between gushing empathy and military bluster, often within the same speech? As Tony Soprano might have put it, whatever happened to Calvin Coolidge, the strong, silent type?
There is no single explanation for the presidency's growth. New communication technologies such as radio and television played a role, as did growing material progress, which made Americans less willing to suffer inconveniences and more receptive to the belief that public problems could be solved with collective action. Yet in each key period of the presidency's growth, we see a familiar pattern: expansionist ideology meeting practical opportunity in the form of successive national crises.
The 100-Year Emergency Much of what's wrong with American government today can be traced to the Progressive Era, that period of reformist backlash against the Industrial Revolution that dominated the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century. As the Progressives saw it, if the Constitution stood in the way of necessary reforms, then too bad for the Constitution. "We are the first Americans," a young scholar named Woodrow Wilson wrote in 1885, "to hear our own countrymen ask whether the Constitution is still adapted to serve the purposes for which it was intended; the first to entertain any serious doubts about the superiority of our institutions as compared with the systems of Europe."
The Progressives were "the nearest to presidential absolutists of any theorists and practitioners of the presidency," wrote Raymond Tatalovich and Thomas S. Engeman in their 2003 book The Presidency and Political Science: Two Hundred Years of Intellectual Debate. For the new century's reformers, power wielded for national greatness was benign, checks on such power perverse. The Progressives had no use for the restrained oratorical traditions of the 19th century; it was the president's job to move the masses, unifying them behind calls for bold executive action.
Their model and embodiment was Teddy Roosevelt, whom the Progressive journalist and New Republic founder Herbert Croly described as a "sledgehammer in the cause of national righteousness." When T.R. took the stage at the 1912 Progressive Party convention, he foreshadowed Obama's quasi-religious fervor and McCain's bellicosity, barking, "To you who strive in a spirit of brotherhood for the betterment of our Nation, to you who gird yourselves for this great new fight in the never-ending warfare for the good of humankind, I say in closing.…We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord!"
The most astute among the Progressives recognized that, given the American public's congenital resistance to centralized rule, a sustained atmosphere of crisis would be necessary to sell the expansion of White House power. Two world wars and one Great Depression did the trick nicely. T.R.'s activist, celebrity presidency heralded the coming of a new sort of chief executive, one who would evermore be the center of national attention, the motive force behind American government. With his expanded power, Roosevelt busted trusts, carried a big stick throughout the Americas with a newly imperial U.S. Navy, and issued nearly as many executive orders as all of his predecessors combined. Woodrow Wilson then proved what Progressives had long hypothesized: that soaring rhetoric combined with the panicked atmosphere of war could concentrate massive social power in the hands of one person. Over the course of his presidency he helped create the Federal Reserve, nationalized railroads, and used the Espionage and Sedition Acts (along with more than 150,000 vigilantes) to carry out the most brutal campaign against dissent in U.S. history.
But it took FDR to eliminate the last remaining vestiges of the modest presidency. Roosevelt used Wilson's Trading With the Enemy Act to shut down all U.S. banks in 1933, grabbed the power to approve or prescribe wages and prices for all trades and industries, and authorized the FBI to spy on suspected subversives. He changed the Supreme Court from a bulwark against presidential overreach to an enabler. By the end of his 12-year reign, FDR had firmly established the president as national protector and nurturer, one whose performance would be judged in terms of what political scientist Theodore Lowi has identified as the modern test of executive legitimacy: "service delivery." In his 11th State of the Union address, FDR conjured up a second Bill of Rights, one whose guarantees would include "a useful and renumerative job" and the "right of every farmer to…a decent living." Depression-era economic controls and war-driven centralization had turned the American system of government, in Lowi's words, into "an inverted pyramid, with everything coming to rest on a presidential pinpoint."
War was the health of the presidency during the long twilight struggle against the Soviet Union as well. "The worse matters get," Harry Truman's adviser Clark Clifford told him in 1948, "the more is there a sense of crisis. In times of crisis, the American citizen tends to back up his president." During the Cold War, presidents used the all-purpose rationale of national security to justify spying on their political enemies. Richard Nixon might have been the most notorious abuser, with a series of dirty tricks and flagrant offenses that led to his downfall, but his predecessors also wielded the presidential bludgeon with gusto. When American steel companies raised prices in 1962, John F. Kennedy declared privately that "they #!++!+ us, and now we've got to #!!% them," then (along with his attorney general, brother Bobby) ordered up wiretaps, Internal Revenue Service audits and early-morning raids on steel executives' homes. During the 1964 presidential race, Lyndon Johnson used the CIA to obtain advance copies of Barry Goldwater's campaign speeches, and the FBI to bug Goldwater's plane.
In the pre-Watergate age of the heroic presidency, public trust in government was at its height, and mainstream scholars lauded the presidency as an earthly manifestation of the living God. As political scientist Herman Finer put it in 1960, the office was "the incarnation of the American people in a sacrament resembling that in which the wafer and the wine are seen to be the body and blood of Christ." The president, Finer said, was "the offspring of a titan and Minerva husbanded by Mars."
During the Eisenhower 1950s and the JFK/LBJ 1960s, the newly ascendant conservative movement coalescing around Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley's National Review was the most potent source of criticism of the imperial presidency. "Others hail the display of presidential strength…simply because they approve of the result reached by the use of power," Goldwater wrote in his 1964 campaign manifesto. "This is nothing less than the totalitarian philosophy that the end justifies the means."
But enticed by the long-awaited prospect of an "emerging Republican majority" and turned off by the journalistic and congressional attacks on Nixon, conservatives learned to stop worrying and love the executive branch. During the post-Watergate reform era, two senior Gerald Ford White House aides named Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld fought tooth and nail against what they felt were dangerous shackles on the executive branch, supported by a conservative commentariat that refocused its ire on the Democratic Congress and the left-leaning press. "I didn't like Nixon until Watergate," National Review stalwart M. Stanton Evans once quipped.
Although Americans finally recovered their native skepticism toward power after Vietnam, Watergate, and the revelations of the Church committee, we never reduced our demands on the executive branch. The lesson we seemed to have learned from the legacy of abuses was to trust less, ask more. In 1998 the Pew Research Center noted that "public desire for government services and activism has remained nearly steady over the past 30 years." Two years later, a report on a survey by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government put it pithily: "Americans distrust government, but want it to do more." The spirit of Denton Walthall lived on in the years leading up to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Conventional accounts of the post-9/11 imperial presidency emphasize the role of dedicated ideologues within the administration, men and women who had long believed that post-Watergate America had swung the pendulum too far back, jeopardizing national security. There's good reason for that emphasis, but the "cabal of neocons" narrative risks obscuring the role that public demands have played in driving the centralization of power.
In his 2007 book The Terror Presidency, Jack Goldsmith, the former head of the president's Office of Legal Counsel, describes the prevailing atmosphere within the executive branch after 9/11, one where the president's men were acutely aware that all eyes were on the commander in chief. What is he doing to keep us safe? What more is he prepared to do?
The Cult of the Presidency
A tangled web. A slippery slope.
Thanks for this JeffT. A good friend of mine used to write for Reason Magazine in the 80's.
In times of war or conflict, power always flows to the executive branch. When times become more peaceful, Congress reasserts itself. One has to look no further than the extraordinary powers enjoined upon the Cold War presidents to see that this is nothing new.
However, I do agree with the premise that the public needs to be more aware and proactive. I just finished reading, "Soft News and Foreign Policy: How Expanding the Audience Changes the Policies," by Matthew A. Baum. As you might expect, more and more Americans are getting their political "information" from soft news sources, e.g., The Insider, Access Hollywood, The Daily Show, instead of the traditional "hard news" shows, e.g., Meet the Press, Face the Nation. Soft news consumers are markedly less educated and prefer 'cheap framing' and "sensationalized human drama."
This new genre is changing the political landscape. "Survey data reflect this pattern (Baum, 2003). For instance, when Gallup (1998) asked respondents to name the major problems facing the nation, soft news consumers without a college education were substantially more likely than their non-soft-news consuming or college-educated counterparts to mention issues involving foreign affairs/national security, terrorism, crime, scandal, or morality. These are the primary topics of most soft news outlets (Baum, 2003; Media Monitor, 1997)...Between 1966 and 1998, non-college-educated NES respondents grew increasingly likely to mention 'major problems' involving foreign affairs/national defense or public order--the latter of which primarily entails crime, morality, and scandal--and less likely to mention other types of political issues. This pattern weakens as education increases; among college-educated respondents there is no discernable trend (Baum, 2003). This evidence is circumstantial. Yet, these trends are precisely what one would anticipate if the rise of the soft news media had altered the content of political information attended to by relatively apolitical members of the public, while the nature and extent of information consumed by their more-politically engaged counterparts remained largely unchanged."
As a result, voting behavior has changed. People are much more interested in a 'likeable' candidate. "Millions of voters, in turn, base their votes more on candidates' personal characteristics--the predominate emphasis of soft news shows--than their policy positions, upon which traditional news outlets place relatively greater emphasis."