I have been thinking a lot about the office of President of the United States lately. There are a lot of folks in the very diverse coalition that elected our current president who have found various reasons to be disappointed with President Obama’s performance in the first eight months of his term of office. I can say I am not happy about the failure to empower a Special Prosecutor to fully investigate the criminal Bush Administrations apparent state sponsored torture program, but is this completely fair? After all the office of President is not really intended to be that powerful, has some of this disappointment come from a misunderstanding of the nature of the office?
If you look at the Presidency from the point of view of the Constitution, it really is not a powerful office except in terms of what it prevents. It is really and primarily a check on the powers of other areas of our government and military. The president proposes no legislation, none. He can only do one of two things with a piece of legislation; he can sign it and make it law, or he can veto it. This is intended to be the final check to prevent the Congress from making a big mistake. They can override a veto, it is true, but when a veto happens it requires a reexamination of the bill by both Houses and a two thirds majority in each in order to overrule the President.
It is true the President is the Commander and Chief of the military forces, as the criminal Bush Administration made a big deal of during their lawless reign, but here again the Presidents intended role is that of a check, this time on the military. The Framers were very concerned about the use of military power to control the political process. They had seen first hand in England and the Colonies what that would look like and they felt there needed to be a check on the power of the military. By putting the decision making power in one office, that of the Presidency, they made someone not of the military accountable. Even here the President needs the approval of Congress to start military action, by a declaration of war, or some other legislation allowing him or her to wage war.
The President is the head of the Executive branch of government and so has many departments under him, yet again, this is really intended as a check position rather than one of real power. The President appoints the leadership of these departments, but he is not really supposed to be involved in the day to day running of them. As an example, the Attorney General, not the President, is the only person that appoints a Special Prosecutor. The President can give his opinion, but he is really only able to do one thing if the AG does something he does not like, which is to require his resignation and appoint a new AG. Even that would not prevent the moving forward of a Special Prosecutor who has been appointed. This is the proper role of the President, to be the person who makes the Executive branch accountable and keep if running smoothly.
It is not particularly surprising we don’t really view the presidency this way. Since the Nixon Administration we have seen more and more Republican Administrations misusing the powers of the Presidency all in pursuit of the spurious and completely unconstitutional idea of the “Unitary Executive”. It is the idea which President Nixon so famously detailed in his interviews with David Frost, basically “If the president does it, it is not illegal”. We have seen this in the Reagan Administration when they traded arms for cash to fund the Contras in Nicaragua against the specific legislation of the Congress.
We have been witness to eight years of the lawless behavior of the criminal Bush Administration who have filled the Executive Branch with partisans and used its offices from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Justice to help more and more Republicans get elected. We have seen the Office of the President stick it nose into every part of the Federal Government to help reward their friends and punish their opponents. We have seen them break US surveillance laws, set up extra-legal prisons and torture detainees. All of this was done through either Executive Order or with their willing accomplices in the Congress, but it came from a misunderstanding of the role of the President and a willingness to misuse those powers.
All of this leaves us in a difficult place. We have been taught, for many of us our entire adult lives, the office of the President has sweeping powers which can be exercised at will, but this is not really the case. It makes us feel as though our current President should be doing more, sweeping aside the opposition and putting things right according to the way we see things. This is part of what the hard-core Right fears so much about President Obama; they think he actually has the powers President Bush appropriated and misused. In the hands of someone they inherently distrust and to some level fear, this is a very scary idea indeed.
Those of us on the Left who are frustrated and disappointed by the President have a bit of a problem. Do we really want President Obama to act in a autocratic fashion like the lawless Bush Administration? There is no doubt major changes could be forced through in this manner, but there is a cost which I think is too high to pay. Namely it is the cost of making the kind of Unitary Executive of the criminal Bush Administration the de facto way all presidents will be able to reign. This is a dangerous precedent to confirm for our Republic.
It is only through complete overreach and not a small element of luck that the plans for the Bush Administration backfired on them. If they had limited themselves to Afghanistan instead of going to Iraq, if they had not have those eight US Attorneys who believed in the law over politics, if they had just bitten their tongue about Joe Wilson’s article discrediting the Yellow Cake purchase statement in the State of the Union, if the warrantless wiretapping had not been so overblown that whistleblowers felt they had to come forward, then they might been able to use their misappropriated powers to install a permanent Republican Majority. It is because of their overreach they failed, but who is to say a future Republican could not learn from their mistakes, if this style of Presidency becomes the norm?
On the whole the I think it is better to have a President who is primarily a check and balance than one who can on his or her own hook take the nation in directions which we don’t want to go. If we have this kind of President then we are at the mercy of the least stable of the people we elect.
So, where does that leave those of us who want change for the better? It seems it leaves us with the Congress, who are much tougher to get going in one direction than a single President. This is not to say it is not important that we on the Left keep elected Democratic Presidents, they are, at the very least, less likely to abuse the powers the President does have and more (though not a lot more) amiable to making the limits of Presidential power clear. Still it is not very smart to focus our ire and efforts on the so strongly on the President, we have to make it clear to the Congress that abdication of their responsibilities to the President is not acceptable, that failure to engage in their oversight role is grounds for replacement and that pretending their job is solely to do what it takes to get reelected is grounds for a strong primary challenge.
Markos of Daily Kos has as the purpose of his site to “elect more and better Democrats”. We have done a good job of electing more; it is time to make them better. We do not have to be as rigid in our enforcement of discipline as the Republicans, but we can certainly make it clear they have to earn the right to represent the people with regular primary challenges.
It sucks to be the reasonable ones, the balanced ones, the temperate and long term thinkers. There are less wins when you take the long course, there is often a level of despair as the passion we feel today gets worn away by the “slow boring of hard boards” that is the political system our Founders gave us, but in the end we do more than just achieve our goals, we do the hard work of preserving the idea of a nation of laws not men we have been born too.
In the end if you want to make things work in this Republic, you have to work the system as it was intended. It is far to easy to do what the Republicans have done and short circuit the system, the problem is that way lies tyranny of one kind or another. The basic idea of our system of government and law is one of balance; we must not trade short term achievements, no matter how well intentioned, for long term imbalance. This is one of the myriad ways that democracies die, and it is one we must avoid.
I am not going to argue that you should not be disappointed with our President, you are always going to be disappointed to one level or another will all politicians. It is just when you are calling for major change from that office, be aware of the limitations of presidential power. Calling for something which can only be achieved through abuse of presidential power is not a good long term strategy either for achieving your gains or for our nation.
The floor is yours.