“I ain’t running for preacher,” Republican presidential candidate Phil Gramm snarled to religious right activists in 1995 when they urged him to run a campaign stressing moral themes. Several months later, despite Gramm’s fund raising prowess, the Texas conservative finished a desultory fifth place in the Iowa caucuses and quickly dropped out of the race. Since then, few candidates have made Gramm’s mistake. Serious contenders for the office recognize that the role and scope of the modern presidency cannot be so narrowly confined. Today’s candidates are running enthusiastically for national preacher—and much else besides.
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.
It’s difficult for 21st-century Americans to imagine things any other way. The United States appears stuck with an imperial presidency, an office that concentrates enormous power in the hands of whichever professional politician manages to claw his way to the top. Americans appear deeply ambivalent about the results, alternately cursing the king and pining for Camelot. But executive power will continue to grow, and threats to civil liberties increase, until citizens reconsider the incentives we have given to a post that started out so humble.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The modern vision of the presidency couldn’t be further from the Framers’ view of the chief executive’s role. In an age long before distrust of power was condemned as cynicism, the Founding Fathers designed a presidency of modest authority and limited responsibilities. 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.
The constitutional office they designed gave the president an important role, but he’d have “no particle of spiritual jurisdiction,” the 69th essay of The Federalist Papers tells us. In Federalist No. 48, James Madison assured Americans that under the proposed Constitution the “executive magistracy is carefully limited, both in the extent and the duration of its powers.” Indeed, the very pseudonym the Federalist’s authors chose, “Publius,” says something about how hostile Founding-generation Americans were to the idea of one-man rule. Publius Valerius Poplicola, a hero of the Roman revolution in the 5th century B.C., was famous in part for passing a law providing that anyone suspected of seeking kingship could be summarily executed.
Never were constitutional limitations more essential than when it came to using military power. Early Americans were no strangers to national security threats; in 1787 the U.S. was a small frontier republic on the edge of a continent occupied by periodically hostile great powers and Indian marauders. Yet the Constitution limited emergency powers and sharply rejected the idea that the president was above the law. “In no part of the Constitution,” Madison wrote in 1793, “is more wisdom to be found, than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department.” In any other arrangement, “the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man.” That sentiment crossed party lines. As Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in 1801, “the whole powers of war being by the Constitution of the United States vested in Congress, the acts of that body can alone be resorted to as our guides.”
Today Americans expect their president to pound Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit,” whipping the electorate into a frenzy to harness power against perceived threats. But the Framers viewed that sort of behavior as fundamentally illegitimate. In fact, the president wasn’t even supposed to be a popular leader. As presidential scholar Jeffrey K. Tulis has pointed out, in the Federalist the term leader is nearly always used pejoratively; the essays by Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in defense of the Constitution begin and end with warnings about the perils of populist leadership. The first Federalist warns of “men who have overturned the liberties of republics” by “paying obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants,” and the last Federalist raises the specter of a “military despotism” orchestrated by “a victorious demagogue.”
Instead of stoking public demands for action, the chief magistrate was expected to resist “the transient impulses of the people” and use his veto to keep Congress within its constitutional bounds. That role didn’t require much speechifying. Early presidents rarely spoke directly to the public; from George Washington through Andrew Jackson, they averaged little more than three speeches per year, with those mostly confined to ceremonial addresses. In his first year in office, by comparison, President Clinton delivered 600.
In the early State of the Union addresses to Congress, presidents knew better than to adopt an imperious tone. After his third SOTU, Washington wrote that “motives of delicacy” had deterred him from “introducing any topic which relates to legislative matters, lest it should be suspected that [I] wished to influence the question” before Congress. Yet the deference shown by Washington and his successor John Adams didn’t go quite far enough for our third president, Thomas Jefferson, who thought their practice of speaking before the legislature in person smacked of the British king’s “Speech From the Throne.” Jefferson instead inaugurated a new tradition of delivering the annual message in writing. For 112 years, that Jeffersonian tradition held sway, until the power-hungry Woodrow Wilson delivered his first State of the Union in person.
The 19th century did see presidents occasionally taking independent action of enormous consequences: Jefferson purchased Louisiana without congressional approval, Madison seized West Florida in 1810, Andrew Jackson governed as an irritable populist, and Abraham Lincoln expanded presidential power dramatically throughout the course of the cataclysmic Civil War. Yet taken as a whole, the 19th-century presidency was a pale shadow of the plebiscitary office we know today.
In a 2002 study tracking word usage through two centuries of SOTUs and inaugural addresses, political scientist Elvin T. Lim noted that in the first decades under the Constitution presidents rarely mentioned poverty, and the word help did not even appear until 1859. Nor did early presidents subscribe to the modern notion that it’s all “about the children”; they rarely even mentioned the little buggers. But Lim found that “Presidents Carter, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton made 260 of the 508 references to children in the entire speech database, invoking the government’s responsibility to and concern for children in practically every public policy area.”
George Washington did mention kids in his seventh annual message, lamenting “the frequent destruction of innocent women and children” by Indian raiders. But that was a far cry from Bill Clinton in 1997, who declared in the State of the Union that “we must also protect our children by standing firm in our determination to ban the advertising and marketing of cigarettes that endanger their lives.”
Wail to the Chief
A little-remembered vignette from the 1992 presidential race underscores how far we’ve traveled from the Framers’ unassuming “chief magistrate”—and how infantile our politics have become along the way. The scene was the campaign’s second televised debate, held in Richmond, Virginia; the format, a horrid Oprah-style arrangement in which a hand-picked audience of allegedly normal Americans got to lob questions at the candidates, who were perched on stools, trying to look warm and approachable. Up from the crowd popped a ponytailed social worker named Denton Walthall, who demanded to know what George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and H. Ross Perot were going to do for us.
“The focus of my work as a domestic mediator is meeting the needs of the children that I work with…and not the wants of their parents,” Walthall said. “And I ask the three of you, how can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect the three of you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it.”
One wonders how some of the more irascible presidents of old would have reacted at the sight of a grown man burbling about childish necessities to the prospective national father. Yet under the hot lights of the 1992 campaign, Ross Perot said he’d cross his heart and take Walthall’s pledge to meet America’s infantile needs, whatever those were. Bill Clinton, being Bill Clinton, pandered. And Bush 41 spluttered through his answer thusly: