A Non-messianic Presidency

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August 10, 2012

By David T. Koyzis

Do Americans expect too much of the president of the United States, and do presidential candidates themselves unwisely encourage such unrealistic expectations in voters?

Back in 1787, when the American founders fashioned their constitutional document for a new federal republic, they began with a discussion of legislative power in Article I, moving on to executive power only in Article II. Why? Because the Congress of the United States was intended to be the preeminent body representing the interests of the people and of the several states, each of which was still jealous of its own autonomy in the new system. When Article I, section 8 sets forth the enumerated powers of the federal government (the remainder being reserved for the states by the Tenth Amendment), the expression, “Congress of the United States,” is for all practical purposes synonymous with the federal government as a whole.

The president, on the other hand, was not to be directly dependent on the will of the people, but was to attain his office by the vote of electors specially designated for this purpose by the states according to their own laws. This suggests that, for the founders, the president was perhaps not intended to be the central figure he has become today. It may be too much to assert, as Garry Wills did more than a generation ago, that the founders embraced legislative supremacy, following the British principle of parliamentary sovereignty. Nevertheless, in the American republic it would be the Congress where the interests of ordinary people were best expressed, the president assuming such executive powers exercised by a monarch elsewhere. Commanding the military forces, pardoning offenses and delivering a state of the union address could be judged to be inherent in an executive office and not obviously in need of direct public endorsement.

There can be little doubt, however, that the president of the United States is now considerably more than a mere functionary carrying out the will of the people’s representatives in Congress. He has long since become the chief legislator, submitting his own agenda on Capitol Hill, much as would a prime minister in a Westminster-style parliamentary system. Accordingly, what might be called the unwritten American constitution has unquestionably developed beyond what the founders envisioned 225 years ago. Amended only a handful of times in the period since then, the written U.S. Constitution has proven capable of accommodating such developments around what seems on the surface to be a fairly rigid text.

There is nothing amiss in this, as all empirical constitutions develop over time to accommodate changing political realities. The United States is no longer a collection of largely rural republics clinging to the eastern edges of North America. As the leader of a great power, a president must be able to respond quickly to both internal and external crises. The business of government is much greater than it was two centuries ago, requiring an office capable of supplying a central co-ordinating function.

However, we have good reason to question whether the enlarged role of the presidency is genuinely conducive to the health of constitutional government. This enhanced position tempts people to view him as a potential savior—as a larger-than-life figure who can part the seas simply by lifting his staff.

Democratic competition only exacerbates these tendencies. No one gets elected by admitting that there is little he or she can do to solve an especially pressing problem, even though it may be the truth. One does not appeal to voters by reminding them that the actions needed to address a particular issue lie beyond the competence of any government. The successful candidate is thus very likely the one who has made the most promises in the course of an election campaign, encouraging messianic hopes he must know he cannot fulfill.

To begin to address this problem, political parties should curtail the role of primary elections, which function more as beauty contests than as satisfactory means for choosing the most qualified office-holders. Short of this, we can begin to bring more realistic expectations to this year’s presidential contest, demanding that candidates stop making promises they cannot keep and show how they would work with Congress to achieve those they can.

—David T. Koyzis is an American citizen teaching politics at Redeemer University College in Canada. He is the author of the award-winning Political Visions and Illusions (2003).

To respond to the author of this Commentary: capcomm@cpjustice.org

Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion.