Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Americans distrust government, but want it to do more and more

Gene Healy, author of The Cult of the Presidency, has a historical overview of the expanding role of the presidency which has accompanied our evolving understanding of what the responsibilities of the federal government are.
In the revival tent atmosphere of Barack Obama’s campaign, the preferred hosanna of hope is “Yes we can!” We can, the Democratic front-runner promises, not only create “a new kind of politics” but “transform this country,” “change the world,” and even “create a Kingdom right here on earth.” With the presidency, all things are possible.

Even though Republican nominee John McCain tends to eschew rainbows and uplift in favor of the grim satisfaction that comes from serving a “cause greater than self-interest,” he too sees the presidency as a font of miracles and the wellspring of national redemption. A president who wants to achieve greatness, McCain suggests, should emulate Teddy Roosevelt, who “liberally interpreted the constitutional authority of the office” and “nourished the soul of a great nation.” President George W. Bush, when passing the GOP torch to his former rival in March, declared that the Arizona senator “will bring determination to defeat an enemy and a heart big enough to love those who hurt.” Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, suggests she is “ready on Day 1 to be commander in chief of our economy.”

The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He—or she—is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America’s shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He’s also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.

This messianic campaign rhetoric merely reflects what the office has evolved into after decades of public clamoring. The vision of the president as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous it goes virtually unnoticed. Americans, left, right, and other, think of the “commander in chief” as a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes. And with great responsibility comes great power.
As Healy explains, such a vision of the powers of the president would be quite alien to the Founders who conceived of a limited presidency and narrow powers of the federal government.
The Constitution’s architects never conceived of the president as the man in charge of national destiny. They worked amid the living memory of monarchy, and for them the very notion of “national leadership” raised the possibility of authoritarian rule by a demagogue ready to create an atmosphere of crisis in order to enhance his power.
With the Progressive Era and New Deal, our vision of what we asked of the federal government changed forever. Add in World War II, the Cold War, Great Society, and the War on Terror and it's clear that we're never going to return to a limited federal government or presidency. Liberals and libertarians will complain about the executive authority that George W. Bush has used in fighting against terrorism, but think of all that the Obama campaign is promising for their candidate. Some people have less concern for a presidential usurpation of power in order to defend us against terrorists and some people prefer to look to the president to use that power to fix our broken souls as Michelle Obama has promised that her husband, if elected president, could do for all of us.
"We have lost the understanding that in a democracy, we have a mutual obligation to one another -- that we cannot measure the greatness of our society by the strongest and richest of us, but we have to measure our greatness by the least of these. That we have to compromise and sacrifice for one another in order to get things done. That is why I am here, because Barack Obama is the only person in this who understands that. That before we can work on the problems, we have to fix our souls. Our souls are broken in this nation."
Whether we're looking for a president to keep us safe or fix our souls, we're certainly conceiving of a very different president than James Madison or even Alexander Hamilton ever envisioned. And we look to the federal government to have power encompass all of this. We're never going to be able to turn back the clock to an 18th or 19th century understanding of the presidency or the federal government. And perhaps there are few who would want to. When disaster strikes, whether it's a terrorist attack or a powerful hurricane, Americans will expect a president who can act with power and dispatch. If you think that George W. Bush is unique in his expansion of presidential powers, then you just haven't studied enough of our country's history. And there is not going to be some great return to an earlier understanding of what a president can or should be able to do whether we elect McCain or Obama.
Today’s “presidentialists of all parties”—a phrase that describes the overwhelming majority of American voters—suffer from a similar delusion. Our system, with its unhealthy, unconstitutional concentration of power, feeds on the atavistic tendency to see the chief magistrate as our national father or mother, responsible for our economic well-being, our physical safety, and even our sense of belonging. Relimiting the presidency depends on freeing ourselves from a mind-set one century in the making.