"President Obama went back to his vacation on Martha's Vineyard Tuesday evening after spending less than 48 hours in Washington, leaving people puzzled over why he came back in the first place," Justin Sink wrote yesterday at The Hill. Actually, Obama probably dropped into Washington, D.C., in August—not the most pleasant time of year to visit the swamp that neither Virginia nor Maryland wanted—because he was getting his balls busted from every ideological point on the compass over his absence. Why won't he do something about the unrest in Ferguson and ISIL beheading James Foley?
In his excellent book, The Cult of the Presidency (text here), Gene Healy warns that Americans have come to see the inhabitant of the White House as "Chief Legislator, Manager of Prosperity, Protector of the Peace, World Leader—and more." He penned that book during the Bush administration, but later wrote for Reason that "When it comes to presidential cults, Barack Obama has turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving."
The White House is now reportedly reviewing and throttling even basic requests for federal records. The New York Times' James Risen was almost late to the party when he called the current president "the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation." This administration has expanded on its predecessors' penchant for invoking "national security" as an excuse to hide its missteps and thwart judicial review of official errors, let alone abuses.
"America is dropping like a stone in rankings of freedom. As power accumulates in one person, expect that to continue," says Frank Buckley, author of the recent book, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America.
Buckley sat for an interview with Reason TV in which he explained the rise of this country's elective monarchy and the dangers that poses.
Both Healy and Buckley point out that this isn't the result of a coup—Americans let it happen.
We push the process along when we insist that the Lord High Protector of the Realm give up a round of golf to reassure the nation about…everything. So he troops home and delivers empty words about terrorist atrocities in foreign lands and long-developing racial tensions and lousy law-enforcement practices in various localities at home. Then he plans some sort of action so that he won't be blamed for inaction, even if that's what he should deliver.
The president, fortunately, doesn't have the unilateral power to salve all our wounds and solve all our problems. But inhabitants of the office are more than willing to accumulate authority if we insist—either because they love the power itself or because they want to be seen "doing" something so we'll leave them the hell alone to play some golf and then fade off onto the lecture circuit after the four- or eight-year nightmare is over.
The presidency is long since "a constitutional monstrosity, too powerful to be trusted and too weak to deliver the miracles we crave," Healy noted in his 2012 article for Reason.
Most problems are beyond the reach of the presidency. They would be beyond its reach even if the office were entrusted with absolute power, though Americans often seem wiilling to test that theory. But most problems have to be resolved by people close to them, and some can't be resolved at all.
The United States started with a federal system so that policy could be experimented with locally, and so could policy mistakes. The country also started with a limited government out of recognition that even saints wielding unlimited power will do much more harm than good by trying to perfect an imperfect world.
At the end of the day, the president is one guy. He has a lot of power and responsibility, but we've already given him too much of both in expectation that he'll address more woes than any institution, let alone individual, could fix.
Leave Obama (and his successors) alone to golf. The solutions to most problems lie elsewhere.