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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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Furthermore, the modern presidency can be a deeply alienating institution. The Framers understood that ours is a diverse country. In Federalist 10, James Madison argued that this diversity would be its saving grace, as no faction or interest could hope to dominate all the others. Keen students of history, the drafters of the Constitution were well aware of the concept of strong executive authority, of kings in particular. They consciously excluded such an instrument from the Constitution, via the Congress and the federal structure. It was Wilson and the Progressives who rejected this ideal, arguing that the country was becoming unified, and would continue to do so with strong national leadership.

While there is certainly much truth to the idea that the United States has become a more unified nation since the Founding​—​when it was easier to travel from Boston to London than from Boston to Charleston​—​ours remains a strikingly diverse nation. No president can hope to unify our many factions, which means that a large segment of the public will invariably find the chief executive extolling values antithetical to their own. Is it any wonder that liberals chafed under the George W. Bush presidency as conservatives have under Obama’s?

Worse still, the modern presidency distracts the citizenry from its paramount civic duty of monitoring Congress. Despite the pretensions of the White House to omnipotence, the fact remains that Congress is​—​as Morris Fiorina once put it​—​the “keystone of the Washington establishment.” Domestic power flows from Congress, not the White House, and yet Americans pay little attention to the doings of the legislature. Instead, for generations, the best proxy for predicting congressional elections has been the standing of the president. If Congress today comes across like a spoiled, undisciplined child, maybe it is because the people have been distracted by the bells and whistles of the modern presidency.

Finally, Americans spend too much time looking for a superman to sit in the Oval Office, rather than a decent administrator who can actually do the jobs assigned him by the Constitution. It is here that we can see Barack Obama as the apotheosis of the Wilsonian ideal. He campaigned self-consciously as a national shaman, whose mere presence could make the government function “properly.” Meanwhile, he never exhibited the slightest aptitude for or interest in the humdrum skill-set that the Framers envisioned the chief executive should possess. Taking care that the laws be faithfully executed, negotiating treaties with foreign powers, using the veto as a check on legislative overreach​—​all of this is insufferable tedium for a personage as special as Barack Obama thinks he is. As Valerie Jarrett told Obama biographer David Remnick: “He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.”

And so in Obama we can see that the Wilsonian model has the tendency to produce the worst of both worlds. Here is a man who cannot realize the ideal of the modern presidency, because it is simply unrealizable. But he lacks the facility to attend to the basic tasks of the chief executive. He spends his days planning “inspiring” speeches that predictably fail to move public opinion, and is AWOL on the uninspiring tasks set forth for him in the Constitution. For instance, when it came to figuring out what the United States should do in Syria​—​according to the New York Times​—​he “often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.”

It is fair to suppose that such executive torpor has contributed to the various fiascos of this administration​—​from policy drift in Syria to the murders in Benghazi to the disastrous implementation of Obamacare to the 2011 budget crisis. In all of them, it is a reasonable bet that things turned out as poorly as they did because the country has a chief executive who sees himself more as a soothsayer than an executive.

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