The Cult of the Presidency

The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power
Gene Healy
Cato Institute, 2008
367 pp.

By Doug Bandow

American liberty is dying. For years the process has been slow strangulation, as successive Congresses and presidents, irrespective of party, expanded government power. True, Republicans usually tightened the garrote a bit less quickly. But the end point was the same: the expansive, expensive welfare-warfare state.

Alas, both parties have combined to give the growth of government authority a dangerous twist: the aggrandizement of the executive. This has been a constant in wartime: Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt all used the alleged necessity of war to justify enormous expansion of not just their congressionally enacted powers, but also their supposed unilateral authority. Last century Democratic presidents led the way in exalting the executive, but now the Republican Party, while endlessly blathering on about individual liberty and limited government, is claiming that the president is a democratically-elected king.

The Republican worship of unilateral executive power has reached its apotheosis in the Bush administration. Taken seriously, President George W. Bush claims to have the right to ignore the Constitution at home for as long as we are at war – which means forever, since the “war on terrorism” has no obvious endpoint and the battlefield is the entire world, including the United States. Admittedly, President Bush so far has not fully exercised these extraordinary powers, which logically include the authority to disband the Supreme Court and prorogue Congress for interfering with his attempt to protect America from terrorism. But if the president can designate an American citizen arrested in America as an enemy combatant to be held incommunicado by the military without access to legal counsel for years, then is there anything the president cannot do?

Gene Healy, a scholar at the Cato Institute, tracks the growth in executive power in his new book, The Cult of the Presidency. The story he tells is extraordinary, and is extraordinarily important. Consider the role of the presidency intended by the nation’s founders, compared to what it is today. Healy opens with the claim by former Arkansas Gov. Michael Huckabee that “America needs positive, optimistic leadership to kind of turn this country around, to see a revival of our national soul.” Not restore our liberties and restraints on government. Not even reform public programs to meet pressing social needs. But revive America’s soul.

Healy wonders what kind of crisis has Michael Huckabee as the solution. More seriously, he asks, “what sort of office did Huckabee imagine he was running for? Is reviving the national soul in the job description? And if reviving the national soul is part of the president’s job, what isn’t?”

The answer, he concludes, is not much. And among the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, only Rep. Ron Paul, the iconoclastic Republican candidate for president, believed his role was to fulfill the limited powers bestowed by the Constitution, rather than to console and uplift 300 million Americans.

The essential point is that whatever the partisan differences between the two major parties – and the discourse has grown increasingly acrid – there is little disagreement over treating the president as national pastor, counselor, philanthropist, economic manager, symbol, guardian angel, psychoanalyst, investor, global leader, popular voice, and righter-of-all-wrongs. Writes Healy: “many of the same people who condemn the growing concentration of power in the executive branch also embrace a virtually limitless notion of presidential responsibility. Today, politics is as bitterly partisan as it’s been in three decades, and the Bush presidency is at the center of the fight. But amid all the bitterness, it’s easy to miss the fact that, at bottom, both Left and Right agree on the boundless nature of presidential responsibility.”

That isn’t the government established by the Founders, of course. Politicians and pundits on the Right routinely praise the brilliance and prescience of those who framed the Constitution, but none among the latter would recognize today’s government as related to, let alone the logical outcome of, their labors. They would be appalled at and horrified by the monster their original government of few enumerated powers had become. And the Founders would have been particularly horrified by the fact that the president of today is far more powerful – and thus far more dangerous – than the king of yesteryear, against whom they revolted.

Healy provides a good summary of the institutions of government as originally established by the Constitution. He is particularly effective in disposing of what he terms “unitarian heresies,” the bizarre notion, advanced today by many conservatives, that the Founders intended to provide the president with monarchical powers. (True, the “unitarians,” as Healy playfully calls them, prefer not to put it that way. But what else should one call the authority to initiate war, arrest citizens, abrogate constitutional rights, torture suspected adversaries, ignore the legislature, and much more?) The Constitution would not have made it out of the constitutional convention, let alone been ratified by the states, if this kind of unitarian theory had been advanced at the time.

The first major, sustained ideological assault on constitutional government came from the left, most notably the Progressives. Both Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were Progressive exemplars. The first was a thorough-going imperialist, the second a messianic racist. Both expanded power in peace and war. Wilson took America into World War I, an entirely unnecessary war which was irrelevant to U.S. interests and culminated in the unjust and unsustainable Versailles Treaty, which a generation later naturally led to another conflict, the worst in human history.

Two “normal” presidencies followed, of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. But Herbert Hoover was an economic micro-manager and meddler, who appears conservative only in comparison to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who began the sustained era of the “heroic presidency.” Explains Healy, “well before the war, it had become clear that increasing numbers of Americans looked to the president for personal help in a way that would have seemed peculiar – even dishonorable – to their fathers and grandfathers. Before the advent of the modern presidency, few Americans had bothered to write to the president, who was, after all, a distant official in Washington with duties that only rarely had a direct impact on ordinary people. FDR’s revolutionary presidency changed all that.”

Healy takes readers through a succession of presidents who were expected to do so much more than in the past – enact legislative programs, keep America prosperous, voice common concerns, and lead the world. This rise in expectations encouraged presidents to claim even more authority. For instance, President Harry S. Truman’s Attorney General, Holmes Baldridge, made the astonishing claim that while the Constitution limited the authority of the legislative and judicial branches, it did not constrain the executive branch, meaning that the president “has the power to take such action as is necessary to meet” an emergency, and in matters of great moment that would mean unlimited power. In the sense of making extravagant claims for presidential authority, at least, George W. Bush is Harry S. Truman reincarnated.

The Heroic Presidency suffered under the Nixon and Carter presidencies. Congress regained some of its lost authority, angering unlimited executive power conservatives like Richard Cheney, who complained in 1984 that during the previous decade legislators attempted “to limit future presidents so that they would not abuse power the way it was alleged some had abused power in the past,” which means Congress had failed “to help presidents accrue power in the White House – so that they could achieve good works in the society.” That is rhetoric one once would have expected from the Left.

The political pirouette was extraordinary: conservatives fought against Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s and Lyndon Johnson’s political pretentions. The 1964 GOP presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater, complained that “If ever there was a philosophy of government totally at war with that of the Founding Fathers,” it was “the current worship of powerful executives.” But after Republicans captured the presidency while despairing of ever taking the House of Representatives, many of them, like Richard Cheney, decided that the executive branch actually represented the fount of most constitutional power.

An important measure of this philosophy is the endless whining over rising levels of distrust of government. Why is this bad? Observes Healy: “Yet, it’s never been clear why a healthy – and, by the 1970s, manifestly justified – distrust of unchecked power should be cause for so much angst. That sort of distrust, after all, is the core of our political heritage.” Unfortunately, the ebbing of popular distrust of government, he notes, had “served as a presidential enabler. Unwarranted trust had allowed unrestrained spying at home and disastrous presidential adventurism abroad.”

But even the resurgence of doubt about the exalted presidency is not enough, so long as Americans have “inordinately high expectations for the office,” notes Healy. While endless lies mixed with extraordinary incompetence have soured the public on how presidents are likely to behave and what they are likely to achieve, Americans still seem to want the chief executive to run America and the world.

The concept of president as “Superman” returned with a vengeance after 9/11. If ever there was a desire for a national voice, it was then. Average people wanted reassurance, liberal hawks joined neoconservative extremists in pushing for an international crusade, Republican apparatchiks saw the opportunity for political gain, and Democratic pols wanted to avoid accountability at all costs. The result was the catastrophe otherwise known as the Bush presidency.

Healy’s detailed history of the Bush administration’s extraordinary and extraordinarily dangerous power grab makes for depressing reading. Few heroes emerge: it turns out that the guardians of the people’s liberties are distressingly few. Under Republican leadership, virtually no bucks stopped with the Congress, which acquiesced in every power grab by the Bush administration. The new Democratically-controlled Congress is little better, having failed to confront the administration over any power grab of substance. Today the president claims to possess virtually unlimited powers and one of his chief theorists, law professor John Yoo, claims that the only test of the legitimacy of presidential power is “why the president thinks he needs to do” something, yet serious congressional oversight remains virtually absent.

Perhaps even more depressing, though, is Healy’s analysis of “why the worst get on top … and get worse.” One problem is what it takes to win office today – fidelity to the Constitution is not, shall we say, typically a necessary factor. Another cause is what the office does do its holders. As a mid-level White House aide I enjoyed perks and status which suggested a right and duty to “govern.” The president lives a truly exalted life, one that brings to mind “the life of a court,” as Healy suggests. There is much to corrupt the judgment of even the most balanced and best intentioned person.

Healy emphasizes that the problem is not peculiar to George W. Bush. The current president is to blame for much, “But George W. Bush is hardly the first president to become intoxicated by power and detached from reality. And whatever dysfunctional behavior Bush has exhibited pales in comparison to that of presidents past,” writes Healy.

America needs to return to a normal presidency, he argues, but how to get there is unclear at best. There are many moving parts in today’s political system, and few are directed at restraining the executive branch. The biggest obstacle to success is the fact that the public appears to like today’s presidency, even if not always the particular occupant.

As Healy observes, we desperately need a president “who is bold enough to act when action is necessary, yet wise enough, humble enough to refuse powers he ought not to have.” Alas, Healy warns, the American people “won’t get that kind of presidency until we demand it.”