Sunday, September 14, 2008

Executive Sour

Jonathan Freedland has written a Viewpoint column for the BBC NEWS Web site, which basically explains why anyone who gets elected President of the United States inevitably disappoint the electorate. While he offers a reasonably good assessment of the assets and liabilities of recent Presidents, his primary argument rests on his introductory premises, which run the gamut from weak to inaccurate:

Barack Obama says the most important quality is vision for the future. No, says John McCain, the key requirement is experience - or at least that's what he said until he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Both want the most powerful job in the world - but neither they, nor anyone else, can agree on what, precisely, are the qualities needed to serve as president of the United States.

Indeed, there is not even a job description - only an oath of office demanding the president defend the US constitution.

What's more, the job keeps changing, evolving constantly in the 230 years since the founding of the republic.

Freedland's biggest flaw resides in his third paragraph. Admittedly, the phrase "job description" was not part of the language of our Founding Fathers; but the fundamental purpose of the United States Constitution was to establish separation of powers by providing clear "job descriptions" for each of those separated powers: the Legislative Branch, the Executive Branch, and the Judicial Branch. Thus, it seems fair to ask whether or not Freedland has ever examined this document, with particular attention to Article II, which provides the job description he seems to think is lacking.

Now it is probably also true that most Americans, who will go to the polls in November or to any number of events staged by the candidates between now and then, are no more familiar with Article II of the Constitution than Freedland appears to be, particularly after eight years of an Executive Branch that has all but assumed a divine right to undermine Article II, if not the entire Constitution. Were voters more aware of what the Constitution said, they might be able to disavow themselves of Freedland's second biggest flaw, which is the first clause of his second paragraph (having to do with "the most powerful job in the world"). In a Constitution that is famous for its brevity, Article II itself is remarkably short, only four sections compared with the preceding ten for the Legislative Branch. Of those four sections, the first is concerned with how the President is chosen and states the text of the oath of office; and the fourth complements the first by addressing how a President may be removed from office by impeachment. That leaves only two sections. Section 3 may be regarded as a statement of "housekeeping" requirements:

He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in Case of Disagreement between them, with Respect to the Time of Adjournment, he may adjourn them to such Time as he shall think proper; he shall receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers; he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed, and shall Commission all the Officers of the United States.

That leaves Section 2, the most substantial of the four:

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments [the Cabinet], upon any subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.

It is interesting to reflect on those who complain about the "activism" of judges (particularly on the Supreme Court) and seem to overlook how little leverage for similar activism is granted to the President by the Constitution. The distribution of text in the Constitution is a clear statement of priorities: The most important concern is that the Legislative Branch provide the country with its foundation of laws in a manner that befits the role of the legislators as representatives of those who elected them to their positions. The President is charged with little more than keeping those operations based on those laws running smoothly. This is not a particularly easy matter, as every President since George Washington has discovered. Perhaps the Founding Fathers required no more from a President than the stipulations of Sections 2 and 3 because they already anticipated that the resulting job would be hard enough without any further requirements.

Imagine, then, what would happen if the authors of the Constitution (the whole contentious lot of them) were to be transported to this very Sunday morning and were presented with Freedland's column. My guess is that, for all of their disagreements, they would react with horror to that "most powerful job in the world" phrase. Having exerted all of their skills in logic and rhetoric to make sure that their United States of America would not immediately lapse into monarchy, they would find themselves in our present reading the language of empire! The rest of Freedland's column would then probably prompt them to consult other sources on the deeds of past Presidents, and some of them might be drawn to Richard Neustadt's Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents: The Politics of Leadership from Roosevelt to Reagan. How would they react to the changes in the use of that word "power" from the time when they first inscribed it in Section 2 to Neustadt's account of the recent past?

In spite of such a reality check, Freedland's basic thesis is probably correct: We tend to be, by nature, disappointed with the Presidents we elect. However, from a historical point of view, there is nothing new about this. George Washington discovered that not only had the Constitution laid out a really tough piece of work for him (harder than commanding a military force) but also even his best efforts at doing the job would inevitably erode his public standing, due, even in those days and in no small part, to the power of the press to criticize his every move. This is not to imply that the press is solely responsible for making us the culture of malcontents we now are but just to observe that having unrealistic expectations if part of our human nature, as is lashing out when those expectations are thwarted. Thus, little is gained from Freedland pointing out a condition that is not much different from the way things were in (to choose a representative year) 1790. Indeed, I might even be so bold as to suggest that all members of the BBC staff covering our election should treat the HBO John Adams series as prerequisite viewing material. (I would make that suggestion to all other journalists covering the election; but I know that, where most of them are concerned, that would be like talking to the wall!)

What about the electorate? Can we ever be a culture that learns to live with thwarted expectations because that is just the way life is? To some extent I suspect this is a matter of whether or not we can learn to recognize when our expectations are being manipulated. This is not just a matter of recognizing that Variety was just as interested in the performances taking place at our Conventions as political analysts were; it also involves recognizing that we have become a culture of consumerism through the prodigious efforts of business to make us buy more and more stuff that we really do not need. We have all become addicted to the world that businesses have made for us; and, like all addicts, we experience the harsh frustrations of expectations that never seem to be satisfied. Unfortunately, neither Section 2 of Article II nor Neustadt has much to say about pulling an entire country through a process of rehab (particularly when most of us would rather be watching Weeds poke fun at that process)!

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