Executive overreach often refers to the growth of the administrative state beneath the President, and whether it has grown beyond the Constitutional limits meant to ensure checks and balances, and protect the liberty of the people.  When discussed in the media, among academics, and at dinner tables and coffee shops around the United States, attention is often turned towards the actions, or attempted actions, of the current White House resident.  Debate over executive orders, signing statements, the limits of war powers, recess appointments, border security, healthcare, swirl and blend in a way such that those without an addiction to the news or a background in government, can easily become lost, or worse, turned off from what is happening in current events.

Functionally, and regardless of ideology, it is difficult to debate the fact that the presidency has overstepped the vision the founders had for the office, and the restraint on power the Constitution was intended to serve as. Missing from the discussion is that the presidency – both the office and the person – has more and more insinuated itself into the daily lives and workings of citizens.  This goes well beyond, and began well before, movement politicians, like President Obama or Ron Paul’s attempts for the Oval Office.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered homes of Americans through thirty fireside chats, where a colloquial and sympathetic president spoke to a nation beset by economic woes and the spread of fascism.  The contest for the White House changed forever in the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates.

In more recent times, candidates and presidents have used the media to enter the living rooms of millions of Americas and ask for votes, rally Americans to their policy agendas, and console the nation in times of turmoil.  President Clinton played the saxophone and John McCain announced his candidacy on late night television.  According to Mark Knoller at CBS, President Obama has appeared on late night shows nine times.

While the rise of television, the twenty-four hour news cycle, social media, and what seems to be a perpetual presidential campaign season help account for the ubiquity of the executive in the media; it fails to reveal a clear picture.  Self-interest and access to the ruling elite aside, television, newspapers and internet companies exist to make money, and to do so they must provide what the customer demands.  Is constant coverage of the executive what the citizens want, even as approval ratings of the president and government in general plummet and voter turn out remains dismal?  Perhaps contemplating why this may be what the citizens want despite the languid, even hostile, views Americans have historically held towards concentrated power, will give us insight not only to the ubiquity of the executive in the media, but the growth of the imperial presidency.

For Gene Healy of the CATO institute in his book The Cult of the Presidency (building in part on the work of political scientist Theodore Lowi in The Personal Presidency) the cause comes with the ascent of progressivism as an ideology and governing doctrine in American politics.  The presidency has had an increasingly messianic tone since the early twentieth century.  This is perhaps explicit nowhere more than FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, articulated in his 1944 State of the Union, where government becomes not the guarantor of negative liberties and a neutral arbiter, but rather, responsible for the material well being of every man woman and child in America.  There are two major problems with this.

The first, and returning to Healy’s excellent book, he points out

“the exultant rhetoric of the modern presidency is as much curse as blessing … A man who trumpets his ability to protect Americans from economic dislocation, to shield them from physical harm and moral decay, and to lead them to national glory – such a man is bound to disappoint. Yet having promised much, he’ll seek the power to deliver on his promises.”

Such promises are impossible for a power short of a god to meet.  However, with the New Deal, the Great Society and other exploits in social engineering, the chief executive has attempted just that.  And we, the American people, have elected him to do so; more troubling are the implications of this.

Of greater concern to the welfare of a republic is that pinning such hopes, asking the executive and an army of well intentioned, but impersonal, bureaucrats to achieve such feats is corrosive to the self-government of the people.  We must consider that self-government is not merely voting in November, not merely paying your taxes and putting a flag in your lawn.  It is, at its most basic, and in the understanding of the founders, the act of regulating oneself.  It is the pursuit of virtue – religious, Aristotelian, or otherwise – as an individual.  This is the cornerstone of a free people.

FDR says in the same address “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’  People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”  This is perhaps true.  Insecurity and desperation can drive men to seek security at any cost, a fact that Lincoln acknowledges in his speeches.  However, dependency is also a form of tyranny.

Often quoted from Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address is his question, “Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him?”  The rapid growth in the executive should give the American people pause, as we contemplate what self-government is, rightly understood.  If we cannot govern our own lives, can we expect other men to have such ability?  History, as Jefferson says, will indeed answer the question for America.

James Legee is Program Director at the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge and Adjunct Professor at Albright College

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6 replies
  1. Ron
    Ron says:

    Few people, even educated ones, are aware of FDR’s State of the Union speech in January 1944 and the implications of his pronouncement of the need for a Second Bill of Rights. It’s timing makes those words fade into history. In January 1944, sons and husbands were gathering in England preparing to invade Hitler’s Europe, were fighting Italian and German troops in Italy, and were Island hopping in the Pacific to defeat Japan. Why would anyone have paid attention to some nice warm and fuzzy sounding lines about a Second Bill of Rights?

    Yet, as of 2009, only one of those Second Bill of Rights had not been implemented over the 60 plus years since FDR spoke the words – health care. With Obamacare, FDR’s Second Bill of Rights is now fully implemented.

    Can 60 years of incremental Progressive and Liberal Progressive growth be reversed? Once anyone has a benefit or a wage, it is almost impossible to take away even a small portion of what is now considered a right. Our task is huge and difficult – but not impossible.

  2. Barb Zack
    Barb Zack says:

    Thought-provoking, indeed. Do WE the people demand too much of our government without even realizing it. I shared this one.

  3. Ralph Howarth
    Ralph Howarth says:

    Federalist 51 is fitting here:

    “It is equally evident, that the members of each department should be as little dependent as possible on those of the others, for the emoluments annexed to their offices. Were the executive magistrate, or the judges, not independent of the legislature in this particular, their independence in every other would be merely nominal. But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. We see it particularly displayed in all the subordinate distributions of power, where the constant aim is to divide and arrange the several offices in such a manner as that each may be a check on the other that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights. These inventions of prudence cannot be less requisite in the distribution of the supreme powers of the State. But it is not possible to give to each department an equal power of self-defense.”

    – See more at: https://constitutingamerica.org/federalist-no-51/#sthash.sKdKUJMC.dpuf

  4. Allan Hampton
    Allan Hampton says:

    “And we, the American people, have elected him to do so; more troubling are the implications of this.

    Readers, Americans, better read what the original Constitution articulates on this matter, also any other matter concerning the U.S. government and citizen’s Duty in Citizenship. It will be found a different story written in the original Constitution.

  5. Allan Hampton
    Allan Hampton says:

    Yes, citizens demand too much, but demand is terribly misleading. Citizens can demand anything they wish but have NO method to force government compliance to their demands.

    If government was compelled to obey citizen demands then citizens could amend the Constitution, which they can’t do; see Article V.

    The one and only demand citizens have a power to force government compliance to is the Oath of Office and the weapon of force is the ballot box to force offenders out of office. That Oath is required by the Constitution, and again citizens can’t change the Constitution.

    Be careful what citizens ask for, or demand, government to do, if it is unconstitutional, like civil rights, it has a good chance of being granted because that is what government wants to do; and then blame citizens (or the other fellow) for government’s criminal, unconstitutional, acts.

    False flags to get citizens approval for wars?

  6. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    As stated in the essay and other discussionists, dependency is a form of tyranny and slavery.

    There is a simple reason why Louisiana was much slower to recover from Hurricane Katrina than Mississippi. Mississippi developed a recovery plan within 60 days or so. A plan that showed how they would rebuild those towns and cities overrun with a 20 foot wall of water. Louisiana NEVER developed a plan. Why not? Because their main concern was how to repatriate relocated State dependent citizens before the next election. Attempts were even made to allow former LA citizens to vote even though they had lived out State for well over a year. Why? Over the coarse of 100 years many a citizen became financial wards of the State. In exchange for enjoying the public purse these citizens voted the enablers into office. The system was so well ingrained that the enablers could see no other path or option than to preserve, protect, and reinstate it.

    Ironically had the enablers boldly used disaster as an opportunity to rebuild New Orleans into a safe, edcauted European cosmopolitan city the Governor would have a statue on the capital grounds next to Huey P. Long.

    Obamacare’s greatest achievement and our worse nightmare is it insidiously added millions of dependents to the government roles through expanded medicaid, tax rebate incentives, non-critical government guaranteed medical services. The progressives understand full well that control comes by turning Americans into dependents. It is a sick, demonstrative, cynical approach to life and governance – but very effective.



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