It’s the Presidency Not the President

dominoes“The intensity of public feelings about President Trump makes it hard to measure him against the presidency. His breaks with tradition are so jarring, and the murmuration of tweets so thick, that debate about his behavior tends to be conducted on the plane of propriety and the president’s seeming disregard for it.

“If Trump were a less divisive figure, we might view these lapses differently. We might consider that what looks like incompetence or impertinence on the part of the officeholder could also be evidence that the office itself is broken.

“Many of the responsibilities that vex Trump are ones that were not part of the job’s original design. They have accrued to the presidency over time, most in the recent past. The Framers, fresh from a successful rebellion against a tyrannical king, envisioned an executive who was limited in power and even stature. For a good long while, the design held. James K. Polk’s wife, Sarah, was so concerned that the 11th president might enter a room unnoticed, she asked the Marine Band to play “Hail to the Chief” to get people to turn their head when he arrived.

“Today we notice when the president doesn’t show up. We are a president-obsessed nation, so much so that we undermine the very idea of our constitutional democracy. No one man—or woman—can possibly represent the varied, competing interests of 327 million citizens. And it may be that no man—or woman—can perform the ever-expanding duties of office while managing an executive branch of 2 million employees (not including the armed forces) charged with everything from regulating air pollution to x-raying passengers before they board an airplane.”

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“Reforming the presidency is necessary, and hard, because the Framers were unspecific about how the office would operate. That’s why George Washington was so conscious of the fact that his every act would set a precedent for the office. It is a job of stewardship. Since Washington, presidents have tended to the traditions and obligations set by their predecessors and passed them on to the presidents who came later. This promotes unity, continuity, and stability. It also promotes bloat.

“Washington would never recognize the office now, though he could commiserate with its modern occupant. ‘I greatly apprehend that my Countrymen will expect too much from me,’ he wrote his friend Edward Rutledge in 1789. The modern president faces the same challenge of fulfilling expectations, but while Washington was conscious of not overstepping the boundaries of his office and making himself too big, the presidents who have come after face the opposite challenge: how not to seem too small for an office that has grown so large.”

Those are the opening and closing words of a significant essay by John Dickerson in The Atlantic Monthly. Significant to liberals and conservatives alike. In between those words, Dickerson thoughtfully moves back and forth through U.S. history to contrast what the Framers (and the Constitution) wanted the office of the President of the United States to be and how radically different the contemporary office has become today. And why that is a huge problem.

I have interrupted writing the next article I want to put on this blog in order to call our attention to this essay. Here’s why. My work on The Wisdom Project during the last fifteen years has of necessity included much research to try to get my mind around the U.S. presidency. Dickerson’s essay filled in an important area of my thinking. It scratched a deep itch that I have had for a long time. But that’s not why I offer the essay to you here.

After reading it I realized that its clear presentation of major changes to the office of the presidency (changes Dickerson identifies as beginning with the Great Depression and steadily increasing in complexity since then) would be very helpful to anyone who really wants to understand the contemporary U.S. presidency and why its ever-expanding job description does not bode well for the county or for the world. You may or may not agree with some of his equally thoughtful recommendations for the current and future presidents, but it is hard to gainsay his thesis: the problem might not be the president but the presidency.

NOTE: this is a topic that I would like to have some conversation about on this blog. If you’d like to get one going, please use the Comments area to share your thoughts. Using the Comments, rather than email, gives others who read this blog an opportunity to chime in. So we can learn wisdom from each other. Thank you.

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Image: by Great Beyond via Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

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