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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