The Magazine

Kingdom Come

The irresistible rise of the imperial presidency

Jul 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 43 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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There are no copyrights on book titles. F. H. Buckley nevertheless shows remarkable audacity in borrowing The Once and Future King from T. H. White’s children’s classic, published in 1958. White enchanted his readers with a fantasy based on the Arthurian legend, replete with swords and sorcery, while Buckley has given us a sobering account of the transformation of the American presidency into an elective monarchy. Nothing seems to connect these two works—Buckley makes no effort to do so—except, perhaps, for one improbable accident: White’s story, adapted to the Broadway stage as the musical Camelot, became the lens for liberals’ fanciful interpretation of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, a template today for progressives’ worship of their president-king.

F. H. Buckley

F. H. Buckley

Buckley devotes much of his time to historical analysis, but his book could easily highlight many stories on the evening news. President Obama began this year telling Americans that he was prepared to govern with a “pen and a phone,” a rare promise on which he has remained true to his word. Hardly a month passes in which the president has not acted on his own discretion, neglecting or contravening the will of Congress. 

How does one grow presidential power? Let us count the ways: by selective enforcement of laws, by running government programs with unconfirmed “czars,” by acts of mass clemency, and by outsized use of regulation. Barack Obama is certainly not the first to avail himself of some of these techniques. Yet one fact is undeniable: He has brought governance by decree out from the shadows and into the bright light of day, changing it from something presidents once did but preferred not to speak about, to something that the president openly celebrates before cheering partisans. 

Many remark on the advent of a “new normal” in the economic realm, in which millions now accept as a matter of course the absence of employment opportunities. Should people not also be worrying about a “new normal” in politics, in which the former balance among the political branches has been permanently subverted? 

F. H. Buckley does not directly attribute the emergence of what he characterizes as this new “constitution”—our fourth by his count—to the Obama presidency. Though an admitted con-serv-a-tive, he is at pains to emphasize that his analysis is driven by a concern with broad institutional developments, not partisanship, which is more than can be said for the legions of commentators who have exhausted themselves going back and forth in their constitutional interpretations to fit their preferences for the person who occupies the White House. Still, since so many of the examples Buckley catalogues are drawn from recent events, it seems fair to say that the Obama presidency represents, for him, the fullest flowering of the new system. 

For the progressive establishment in both the academy and the media, this concentration of power in the presidency was not meant to be. Recall how the organs of progressive opinion excoriated George W. Bush in his second term, not just because of his policy decisions but on the higher grounds of abuse of power. Progressives converted en masse to a version of constitutional literalism and convinced themselves that their leader must subscribe to it as well. And, directly to the point, Barack Obama engaged in enough rumblings about the outsized character of the executive power to satisfy the faithful. Fox News now specializes in rolling out some of the old recordings in which Obama, reminding his audiences of his pedigree as a teacher of constitutional law, talked the talk; condemning, for example, Bush “signing statements” that “undermine congressional instructions as enacted in law.” 

Yet the truth is that Obama never articulated a full-blown doctrine of executive power, whether because he was uninterested or because he was too shrewd to tie himself down. If anything, he has remained an advocate of the living Constitution, which, so far as the powers of the presidency are concerned, has meant a Constitution that lives for him.