Topple the Cult of the Presidency

A certain type of person will bemoan the current lack of respect for the presidency. Sometimes “national greatness” authoritarian centrists are the ones doing this, but often outrage falls on partisan lines. The same people cheering the shoe assault on George W. Bush call “treason” when someone yells at Obama. What these camps have in common is they all reject Nixon’s greatest gift to America – a dislike and distrust of the office of the presidency. We need that back, and we need it back decades ago.

On Wednesday, a transgender undocumented immigrant interrupted President Obama’s “yay gay rights” speech to voice her disapproval of immigrant detainment centers and of deportations.

As happens when someone powerful is faced with a heckler (or more accurately, an activist), Obama was pompous, and the crowd responded with disgust. They eventually drowned out Jennicet Gutiérrez ’s cries of “no one more deportation!” with “shhhh,” “shame,” and worst of all, “O! Ba! Ma!” “O! BA! Ma!” as Gutierrez was taken out by security. Regardless of your feelings on larger immigration policy, Gutiérrez was giving voice to a serious issue – a life and death one for many. People – most of whom have committed only a malum prohibitum offense – are being imprisoned by the thousands in the US. Isn’t that pressing enough to justify some rudeness? And isn’t it deeply unsettling to respond to important human rights concerns by chanting the name of the most powerful man in the world? Where does that awful impulse come from?

The most powerful man in the world had his feelings hurt over the interruption and said something which reveals the true state of the US presidency: “Listen, you’re in my house.”

His house? How does he figure?

Cato vice-president Gene Healy wrote an essential book called The Cult of the Presidency which didn’t even cover Obama’s new kingly mannerisms! (Healy wrote a little ebook follow-up about Obama a few years later.)

Cult is not just a fascinating history of the changing feeling about the executive branch; it is also a cautionary tale about power and expectation. Presidents big enough to chime in about every tragedy – from bad weather to another shooting – are big enough to go to war on their own. Expecting impossible things from a president – including perfect safety – means that people demand wars and endless imperialism in order to “protect” themselves.

This is why people need to keep yelling at presidents – to get through the cult. CodePink and I have many domestic disagreements, but their dogged protesting and interrupting of the powerful as they spew warmongering, imperialist rhetoric makes the group heroic. And they protest warmongers regardless of party. They stayed while much of the left fell into line behind Obama and his campaign of killing slightly fewer people in the Middle East (but with fancier, more futuristic weapons).

Before the 20th century, instead of looking at the White House as a palace belonging to the resident of the oval office, it was obvious that it belonged to the people. Even guards would be unseemly because the president would then appear to be a king. There was always hierarchy, and politicians have always fancied themselves better than the rest of us, but for a time America did possess a vague notion that the president should be kept in check, and kept away from monarchical conceits.

That is gone. Hell, even the brief post-Church committee 1970s concept of needing to keep the president in line is no more. And Barack Obama is not unique in grabbing excessive executive powers by any stretch of the imagination. But he is the current executive power run amok. He is the man droning thousands, killing American citizens, and joking about drone assassinations at White House Press Correspondent Dinners. And he’s the one slowly sending troops back to Iraq.

From Obamacare to, yes, immigration reform, to war-making of all kinds, Obama believes that the balance of power does not apply to him. This is particularly heinous when it comes to war powers. Congress is supposed to go to war. Wars are not magically good simply because they were constitutionally waged. But worse is this breed of president who simply calls a conflict a police action, or says that previous uses of military force apply to a current conflict (and apply…forever). The latter is Obama’s argument, and is a perfect engine for driving the war on terror. The Afghanistan and Iraq war authorizations for use of military force are still in effect, so any war against any “terrorist” is legal.

Certainly the American people are partially to blame – if only for their insistence on picking the “lesser” of two evils every four years. Congress is truly pathetic in their unwillingness to do their job and to be an obstruction to the president. And their unwillingness to put the war that is already going on to a vote is more shameful still. The majority of them cave when war is to be voted on. But they don’t even get that far anymore.

The 1973 War Powers Resolution is meant to allow the president to repel an attack on the US without the need for Congressional approval. But even that power is limited to a total of 90 days. We’re some six months past that. The fact that Congress cannot get it together enough to enforce something that was already violated last year makes them just as much to blame for the situation as Obama. Yet he remains safe and satisfied in his own magnanimousness, because he is willing to at least pretend that Congress has any say in going to war. The president will do what he likes, but on a good day, he might ask for outside opinions. We need to shout more at him – scream at them.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and a columnist for She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at

Author: Lucy Steigerwald

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for and an editor for Young Voices. She has also written for VICE,, the Washington, The American Conservative, and other outlets. Her blog is Follow her on twitter @lucystag.