A Presidency Worth Celebrating

Going back to George Washington's conception of the office


Presidents Day: It's become so commercialized. But should we celebrate something other than 20 percent markdowns on clothes and furniture? However much Americans may revile individual presidents, many of us believe that the presidency itself gives us much to be thankful for.

Conservative historian Forrest McDonald expressed a common view when he wrote in 1994 that "the presidency has been responsible for less harm and more good, in the nation and the world, than perhaps any other secular institution in the world."

It's not hard to think of other institutions that better justify McDonald's praise. The independent judiciary? Market capitalism? The family? Casual Fridays? But more to the point, is the presidency still a "secular institution"?

If it is, that's hard to discern by listening to our current front-runners in the 2008 race, who talk as if they're running for a job that's a combination of guardian angel, shaman, and Supreme Warlord of the Earth. 

John McCain has invoked Teddy Roosevelt as a role model, noting that the Trustbuster "liberally interpreted the constitutional authority of the office" and "nourished the soul of a great nation." Barack Obama sees soul-nourishing as part of the president's job too. As his 2004 keynote address to the Democratic Convention made clear, the "Audacity of Hope" signifies the eternal promise of redemption through presidential politics. (Is "audacity" really the right word for that kind of hope?).

Both men also see the president's corporeal responsibilities as boundless—ranging from providing liberty the world over to establishing a "Credit Card Bill of Rights" that would ban certain charges and ensure "prompt and fair crediting of cardholder payments." 

Our first president had a far narrower view of the office's powers and responsibilities. And since the holiday we're enjoying is still officially known as "Washington's Birthday," perhaps there's something to be learned from his comparatively restrained view of the office.  

It's common these days, especially after 9/11, to hear people call the president "our commander in chief"—as if he's the leader of society as a whole, rather than just the head of the U.S. military. But Washington didn't go around calling himself everybody's commander in chief. Most often he referred to himself as merely the "chief magistrate."

And contrary to our contemporary George W., Washington didn't think his authority as commander in chief meant he could break any law that he thought impinged on his ability to protect national security. Washington even doubted his "inherent power" to launch offensive action against hostile Indian tribes. As he put it in 1793, "The constitution vests the power of declaring war in Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject and authorized such a measure."

Nor did Washington believe that it was the chief magistrate's role to serve as "Tribune of the People," promising great works, and demanding the power to carry them out. Like other early presidents, Washington averaged only a handful of public speeches a year. The modern presidency–an office charged with providing seamless protection from physical harm or spiritual decay—is a different creature entirely.  

But if we worry about the increasing concentration of power in the executive branch, we shouldn't kid ourselves that the Imperial Presidency can be blamed solely on a cabal of neoconservative ideologues and a stack of hanging chads. Our outsized conception of presidential responsibility has driven the growth of presidential power. Only by reducing those demands can we restore the presidency to its proper constitutional place: a modest office with modest powers.

That sort of restoration would be something worth celebrating.

Gene Healy is senior editor at the Cato Institute and author of the forthcoming The Cult of the Presidency: America's Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.

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