One of the most surprising to may people, and one of the most thematically consistent, is the insistence of their claim to the weakness of the office. In making that complaint, I believe it was Lyndon Johnson – one of the most powerful of American presidents, and the one who accomplished, for better or worse, far more than most of his colleagues in the position – who said in frustration something along the lines of, What can I do? The only power that I have is the bomb, and I can’t use that’.
This consistent theme is remarkable for a variety of reasons, not least including the fact that these very same occupants join the rest of us in describing the office as the most powerful position on the planet. And they are – again, for better or worse – accurate in saying so.
What explains this conundrum is that the president sits atop a country that is head and shoulders beyond every other country in the world in terms of economic, military, political and cultural power. That may well not be the case in 2050, but it is now. To take just one simple example, consider that the United States spends about $1 trillion per year on its military. If you take all the other countries in the world – nearly 200 of them – and combine their spending on the military, together they equal about half of that amount.
At the same time the American president leads this incredibly powerful country, the office itself was designed by the Founders to be about as weak as possible – at least during peacetime – without the country falling apart altogether, as it had been doing under the even weaker Articles of Confederation. Thus, the president’s institutional power is weak, but the country he leads is powerful. And thus the conundrum of a presidency that seems simultaneously powerful and powerless.
Of course, presidents such as Roosevelt, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan and especially the little Bush have massively expanded the power of the presidency, metastasizing it into a monster you’d be tempted to say that the Founders would no longer recognize. Except, that they would. It would probably look uncomfortably familiar to them, in fact. The last George would remind them quite a bit of a George they came to know and hate, so much so that they twisted their new polity into pretzels of constitutional engineering in order to avoid replicating the British monarch.
They succeeded, and they failed. Not for nothing that we’ve been referring for a generation or two now to the “imperial presidency”. And, if Dick Cheney had had his way, that phrase would have been shortened by one word, simply to ‘Emperor’. Building on a foundation established by the other aforementioned presidents, who radically changed the office from the nineteenth century model, Bush and Cheney arrogated more power to the American executive then even Nixon might have fantasized about. And Barack Obama has so far displayed a somewhat troubling unwillingness to entirely renounce those claims.
In other words, it’s not your great-great-great-great-grandfather’s presidency, I’m afraid. At the same time, I think we have to honestly say that the framework of the Founders remains remarkably intact, at least when there are men and women possessing the wisdom and the courage to perform their prescribed functions underneath that constitutional design. To some degree, that is what we have today. Even the Boy King wasn’t able to sell off Social Security to his Wall Street cronies, try as he might, because Congress said “no”. He also wasn’t entirely able to run his sham kangaroo court system for detainees in his sham war on terrorism, either, because the Supreme Court said “no”. And so on.
These are, of course, rather exceptional cases. Generally, the American judiciary defers to the president with a high degree of regularity, especially on national security issues. That’s not necessarily a good thing, but in reality, not much has changed in that regard since the founding of the country.
Congress, on the other hand, has shown itself to be more or less a complete disaster. Republicans are all guts, and no wisdom, while Democrats have none of either. The GOP has near total party discipline, and uses it to vote like an army of rigid automatons that would make members of the Borg Collective uncomfortable. When they controlled Congress they gave Bush nearly everything he wanted – only choosing to block him when he wasn’t regressive enough – and they completely abdicated all of their responsibilities in terms of oversight, checks and balances, and good governance in any shape or form. Democrats, on the other hand, wouldn’t know a profile in courage if it slapped them upside the head. They took every fat opportunity Bush gave them to do the right thing and stand up for the interests of the American public, not to mention for a little thing called the law, and ran off into hiding instead.
All of that said, a little comparative analysis is still instructive in a big way. This institution – even under Bush and Cheney – does not resemble Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Kim, Khomeini or Castro. In truth, it doesn’t even resemble Gordon Brown. The British prime minister – sometimes accurately referred to as an elected dictator – is a far more powerful institution than the American president. There are no courts to strike down legislation or executive orders. There are no states or provinces with which to share power in a federalist system. There is no written constitution, per se, overtly proscribing certain governmental policies. And, at least under normal circumstances, there is no separate legislative branch to defy the prime minister, since he or she has, by definition, a built-in majority there.
The simple fact is that America is a hugely powerful country, but there are serious limitations on the power of the American presidency. And, as it turns out, the presidential power that is often the most significant is not even found in the Constitution. It’s the bully pulpit. It’s the power to persuade. It’s the biggest soapbox in the world. It’s all that, and actually a lot more. Because the real power, the serious power, of the bully pulpit is not so much to argue for one position or another in an ongoing debate, but rather to put an issue on the table that wasn’t there before. And then to frame the structure of discourse surrounding that issue. Typically, if a president argues that we need to start thinking about something that hasn’t been on the agenda so far, it will instantly be on the agenda from that time forward. And, typically, a president can also be extremely powerful in shaping the way we think about issues as well, which often constitutes more than half the battle when the issue is ultimately engaged.
I have written three columns about Barack Obama since he was inaugurated in January, including one just a week or two back. Every one of them has been critical – including one which referred to him as “Obusha” in the title – and if I had to label the Obama presidency with one word so far, it would be “disappointing”. It’s been this way for me since the beginning of his campaign. I see his potential to be a great president, particularly given the crises which surround us at the moment, the hunger of the American people for honest leadership, and the near complete implosion of the Republican opposition. And yet, I also see him consistently failing to act boldly. Worse, he too frequently carries forward the horrific agenda of his predecessor, sometimes even exacerbating it.
And yet, every once in a while he does something that truly impresses me. I think the first time I noticed this was his Philadelphia speech on race, which struck me as the most mature, adult conversation a president (or candidate) has had with his country in my lifetime. In truth, I guess a lot of what he’s done that I’m impressed with has taken the form of speeches, rather than action. In fairness, it’s pretty early for that latter agenda to bear fruit. If he’s serious about national healthcare, leaving Iraq, or shutting down Guantánamo, those are things that cannot be done on short order, and I’m not bothered by the fact that they are only in motion rather than completed, four months into this presidency (assuming, that is, that they do get completed).
One could certainly make a good argument that I’m a naïve fool, easily placated by empty rhetoric, while the president’s real agenda is simply more of the same, only this time presented with a happy liberal face fronting predatory policies, rather than a snarling Dick Cheney. I certainly can see the merit to that assertion, and I don’t even entirely disagree with it. On the other hand, however – and this is really significant – it ignores the huge potential power of the bully pulpit.
I was reminded of this once again the other week, as Obama gave the commencement speech to graduating students at Arizona State University. This is the paragraph that jumped out at me: