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Presidential Fantasies

Bring the ‘clerkship’ back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Nov 11, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 09 • By JAY COST
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At  the start of last month’s government shutdown, a mostly overlooked message emanated from the Twitter account of Michelle Obama, informing her followers: “Due to Congress’s failure to pass legislation to fund the government, updates to this account will be limited.” The conventions of American governance typically exclude the first lady from the rough-and-tumble of politics, yet it does raise an important question: Why is America paying a staffer good money to publish Tweets under Michelle Obama’s name?


Today, the White House employs over 400 people with a payroll of nearly $40 million. Compare that to the 45 employees under Franklin Roosevelt and one can appreciate just how enormous the operation is today at the White House​—​large enough to pay somebody to tweet for the first lady.

The enormous expenditure on the White House staff reflects the growth of the modern presidency, which has been remarkably transformed from the original vision proffered by the Founders. Presidential adviser Richard Neustadt famously called the old presidency a “clerkship”; the tasks were to wield the veto pen, prepare a State of the Union address (usually delivered in writing), manage foreign affairs and war-making, issue pardons, and, of course, “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” This limited vision held the country in good stead for over a century, and its responsibilities and powers were flexible enough that excellent men like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln could still make of it what their extraordinary capacities enabled them to.

But it was not enough for the Progressives. Woodrow Wilson in particular sought a revision of the presidential office. He thought the Framers had made a grave mistake in dispersing power as they did. Their outdated views of the danger of concentrated power kept the government from acting with responsibility and energy. Early in his academic career, Wilson praised the British parliamentary model, in which the executive and legislative functions were combined in the House of Commons. But after he witnessed the vigor of Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt, he changed his mind on how the government should be “fixed.” He thought an active and vigorous president could inspire and mobilize the public behind his program, and thus unify what the Framers had separated.

Most presidents ever since have seen their role in a similar light. Ditto the people at large. According to Cato Institute scholar Gene Healy, just about everybody sees the president simultaneously as “world leader,” “protector of the peace,” “chief legislator,” “manager of prosperity,” and “voice of the people.” This is why nobody much complains that Mrs. Obama is paying somebody good money to tweet on her behalf.

Yet in pursuing this “modern president,” the people have in fact been chasing a fiction. The president simply lacks the capacities that Wilson envisioned. The vision of the modern president was never amended into the Constitution, meaning that the formal powers of the office are the same as they ever were. The power of the modern president is informal, mostly wrapped up in his power of persuasion. But as political scientist George C. Edwards III demonstrates in The Strategic President, there really is no evidence that the president persuades in the way that Wilson thought he could. He cannot move public opinion by fiat; at best, he can mobilize existing opinions into a coalition for action.But even those efforts are inevitably constrained by a host of factors, like the partisan makeup of the legislature. Wilson learned this lesson the hard way as his efforts to pressure the Senate to ratify membership in the League of Nations failed.

Yet the public still looks for a man who can be the voice of the people, and this fruitless quest has created a great deal of harm along the way. Every president feels compelled to “spin” the news in as favorable a light as possible to create the (often false) impression that he is the master of events. Always and everywhere, the modern president must give the impression that he has everything under control, and is sure to iron out whatever problems he may encounter. Yet quite often the president is a victim of circumstance or his own ineptitude, and has no power to do anything about it. As a result, the president comes, sooner or later, to be perceived as a liar by all but his most diehard supporters.

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