The Role of the President

This campaign is no different. In this sweet land of liberty, Democrat Party nominee Al Gore promises us federal government programs from cradle to grave. Republican rival George Bush stops a bit short of this, pledging federal involvement from about kindergarten to grave. These days, this passes for limited government.

The president is now expected to “run” the economy, serve as Commander-in-Chief, manage the planet's largest work force, make the world safe for democracy, feed the hungry, eliminate discrimination, eradicate disease, ensure a healthy food and water supply, educate our children, punish foreign bullies, pay our parents’ hospital bills, provide for our retirement, save the environment, and propose all manner of government programs to make us more healthy, wealthy and wise. Oh yeah, and preserve our liberty too.

Naturally, both Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush claim they're up to the task.

Two parties, two candidates, two visions. Two budding Caesars. As much as I hate pouring cold water on our national delirium, one question does seem appropriate: Is this what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they created the nation's highest office?

Answer: Not exactly.

In fact, it's more likely the Constitution's Framers would be aghast at the enormously inflated role the President now occupies. Their original design of the presidency is so starkly different from today's imperial version that they’d hardly recognize it. If they were alive now, the founders might be clamoring for a return to the good old days of King George III, who never dared interfere in the daily lives of his subjects the way our country's leaders do today as a matter of routine.

No, the Founding Fathers conceived of the president as more of a watchful executive, charged with “faithfully executing” the nation's laws and solemnly swearing to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This, for those of you unaware of the stunning number of Constitutional abuses over the past 30 years, is an oath modern presidential candidates have absolutely no intention of keeping.

Nevertheless, it's instructive to see what the nation's founders had to say about the office. In Federalist No. 69, Alexander Hamilton argues against the notion that the President is a new monarch, instead comparing his powers to the governors of New York, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. In some cases, Hamilton argues, the president has authority superior to a state's governor and in some cases, inferior. But in every way, he's endowed with far less than a king, acting more as a servant than a sovereign.

Not only is presidential authority limited by the Constitution, but other branches of the government check what power the executive is given. True, he's elected for four years but, unlike royalty, is subject to impeachment and removal by Congress for bad behavior — if they can muster the nerve. Yes, he's Commander-in-Chief, but any inclination to mischief-making is subordinate to Congress' power of declaring war and raising and regulating fleets and armies.

Further, the president's ability to make treaties and appointments to office is shared with the Senate. He “can confer no privileges whatever,” Hamilton continues, “can prescribe no rules concerning the commerce or currency of the nation,” and, unlike the King of England, “has no particle of spiritual jurisdiction.” In other words, the office was carefully designed to avoid amassing too much power under a single mantle.

In fact, Thomas Jefferson thought so little of his tenure as our third president, he omitted it from his list of achievements when writing his epitaph. In his mind, being founder of the University of Virginia outweighed being Commander-in-Chief. Trying to create “a Great Society” would have never occurred to Jefferson; it was enough of a job just to defend the Constitution.

Like other branches of the federal government, though, modern presidents have discovered the means to circumvent their Constitutional limitations. Executive orders are routinely used to bypass Congress; huge federal bureaucracies — like the IRS — control innumerable facets of our lives and can make life miserable for presidential opponents; combat is frequently waged in far-flung regions without a Congressional declaration of war; and the Federal Reserve Chairman, head of the world's most powerful economic organization, is directly accountable to him. In short, the president controls our social, economic, and military resources in a way that would make Roman Emperors green with envy.

Much of this usurpation of power occurred through the acquiescence of a timid Congress. But to an even greater degree, the fault lies with us. We seem unable to resist the lure of more government goodies, blissfully oblivious to the dark side of this arrangement — that all these goodies must be paid for by transferring wealth from the pockets of one group of Americans to those of another. Usually, this is achieved via IRS coercion and threats.

Largely, Americans today can't even conceive of a presidency on the scale the Founders intended, instead regarding the president as a sort of civic messiah, a Supreme Being with answers — usually in the form of expensive federal programs — to all our problems. Naturally, each program expands the reach, scope and cost of the central government, which has already ballooned far beyond its lawful limitations.

You'd think that based on the experience of the last century — the bloodiest ever — voters would be skeptical about supporting professed secular saviors pleading for increased power. After all, didn't Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-Tung each lead popular movements to solve their country's ills?

Thus, it seems we're using the wrong measurements to evaluate presidential contenders. Nowadays, we look for someone with “leadership” qualities such as energy, verve, drive, imagination, daring, vision, and charisma. All fine attributes in a private citizen, maybe, but dangerous in a head of state.

The Founders, on the other hand, cautioned us about placing too much trust in a single individual, instead constructing a separation of powers to best preserve freedom. As president, then, they'd judge candidates based on their “executive” characteristics like judgment, maturity, sobriety, logic, experience, character, and respect for the rule of law.

But this year, unfortunately, George Washington isn't on the ballot.

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