Presidential History

U.S. Presidents Aren't Worth Celebrating

Every year, there are conservatives who complain about a "War on Christmas." If there's ever a War on Presidents Day, sign us up.

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Deals on used cars, discount mattresses and not so much as an honorific doodle of Teddy Roosevelt on Google's homepage—have we drifted away from the true spirit of Presidents Day?

Real patriots spend the third Monday in February thinking about the presidency. In fact, I spent the day reading Thinking About the Presidency, a new book by the distinguished University of Chicago political scientist William G. Howell. And now I think we're screwed.

The book's subtitle is "the Primacy of Power," reflecting Howell's view that "power is the president's North Star. … The need to acquire, protect, and expand power is built into the office of the presidency itself, and it quickly takes hold of whoever temporarily bears the title of chief executive."

The demands Americans place on the presidency are virtually boundless: They "invest in the president their highest aspirations not just for the federal government, but for the general polity, for their communities and families, and for their own private lives." Responding to the incentives that confront them, presidents naturally seek power to meet the insatiable public demands for presidential salvation.

Thus, Howell writes, "from nearly the moment he assumes office, the most self-effacing presidential candidate will quickly be transformed into a great apologist for presidential power."

You wouldn't exactly call President Obama "self-effacing." But his background as a former constitutional law professor and liberal state senator, and his campaign speeches denouncing "unchecked presidential power," led some liberals to believe he'd be "our first civil libertarian president."

And yet, since assuming office, Obama has broken more campaign-trail promises on executive power than you could fit into a Buzzfeed listicle. A sample:

Obama didn't set out to forge a legacy as the Surveillance State's greatest champion, any more than President George W. Bush had an ideological precommitment to vastly expanding presidential power over the economy. But as Howell notes, "presidents can ill afford to repudiate any power that might enable them to address the onslaught of expectations put before them."

As law professor Garrett Epps has noted, the Framers did something new under the sun with the creation of the presidency. But "it wasn't their best work." The Framers thought they'd made separation of powers largely self-executing: Ambition would counteract ambition, so that, in Madison's words, "the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights."

But the mechanism doesn't work as planned: The private interests of individual congressmen lead them to cede power to the executive branch and focus on reelection. Congress rarely guards its institutional turf—yet every president ends up leaving the presidency stronger than he found it.

The results are nothing to celebrate. Every year, there are conservatives who complain about a "War on Christmas." If there's ever a War on Presidents Day, sign me up.

This column previously appeared in the Washington Examiner

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18 responses to “U.S. Presidents Aren't Worth Celebrating

  1. If the recent crop is any indicator, the President should be derided, pelted with rotten fruit in public and ostracised. Of course, the praetorian guard will shoot anyone throwing suitable materia at the officeholder.

  2. Cincinnatus Day?

    1. Fuck yeah I’d celebrate that!

      1. What have the Romans ever done for us?

  3. “have we drifted away from the true spirit of Presidents Day?”

    have we drifted away from the true spirit of Christmas? of Thanksgiving? of Memorial Day? of Independence Day?

    1. I thought it was Washington’s birthday, then later for Washington and Lincoln and then liberals co-opted it to be about the office itself and anyone who had held it.

  4. I think Washington was a great man. I celebrate George Washington’s birthday. They rest of them? Not so much.

    1. George Washington was a stinking Federalist and Hamilton’s puppet.

      He loathed the enlisted men in the Continental Army, he attempted to make his pet officers into nobles and suppressed farmers and herdsmen who we being taxed out existence by corrupt, Federalist dominated state governments.

      The only thing he really wanted in life was a commission as British officer in the American Establishment that briefly existed after the Seven Years war.

  5. So how will your little darling Rand Paul fit into all this if he makes President?

    1. Better fit than any of your darling Pres’s, maybe? Wouldn’t take much. Probably knows what individual rights are at least.

      1. That’s right David. And Rand is white also. Which of course means that he will automatically know what individual rights are. Right? I didn’t think about that before. Thanks for reminding me. Keep up the good work David.

        1. OOOH!! RACISM!!!

    2. For the reasons stated in this article, this will never happen.

      That would be like electing a non-president president.

  6. Consider: It’s a national holiday, with many people getting the day off, to celebrate presidents. Not the Constitution, which has an holiday (September 17) that no one fucking celebrates. Pathetic statement about where we are today.

  7. The whole “war on xmas” thing is one of the biggest scams ever. Those poor, persecuted Christians, you know, the ones who make up 80% of the population, and whose Blue Laws are just now STARTING to be repealed in SOME states. I mean, I can’t buy liquor in the State of OK after 9 or on Sundays, because, you know, Christians are being persecuted, right?
    And we all know how it is impossible for a Christian to be elected President, why, a Muslim has a much better chance!
    And how in the world would a Christian ever be welcomed into our military, let alone achieve a high rank!
    According to the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) (2008) 76% of the American adult population identified themselves as Christians- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R…..ted_States

  8. At various times Obama has informed us he sees himself as an Abe Lincoln, at others he claims to be Richard Nixon. Well, at least Obama knows he’s a piece of feces.

  9. It will have to start in the schools. Teach young American’s the role of the president is simply to administer not legislate and then maybe people will stop looking to the presidency to solve their personal problems.

  10. Here’s my take on Holidays: If I have to be at work, it’s not a fucking holiday.

    Extending that: If Bankers and Postal Workers are not at work, AND your kids have the day off from school, BUT you still have to work, its not just “not a fucking holiday”, its a fucking logistics nightmare.

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