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Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Politics, Part 2 - Viva El Presidente!

Someone I know who has actually had "skin in the game" in politics -- worked in campaigns, negotiated political disputes, knocked on doors---  once made a comment about US presidential elections that has stuck with me.

"Two hundred some years ago, we had a war because we didn't want to live under a king. And we've been trying to elect a new one ever since."

I think this view is how many of us look at the presidential elections. It is not the view of educated, informed citizens of a vigorous democratic republic. It is the fearful, ignorant, childishness of peasants in a banana republic who want, or need, a kingly leader in which to invest their hopes. 

And if I am honest with myself, its pretty much how I have looked at politics most of my life.

So I went back to basics, to the US Constitution. As we all recall from grade school, the power of the US government is split up among three branches (Legislative, Executive, and Judicial), with each branch has some power to approve or disapprove what the other branch does, commonly called "the system of checks and balances".

But each of the three branches has some "unchecked" powers, including the president.

I thought it made sense to look at what power the president has all by their lonesome -- meaning what can they do that is not subject to any "checks and balances" by the other two branches, and therefore, which neither of the other two branches can limit. - Here's what I found:

1. "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" (in other words, send troops into battle)

2. "Require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices" (or, manage the executive branch)

3. "Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except for cases of impeachment" (issue "get out of jail free" cards)
4. "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" (a.k.a Recess Appointments)

5.  "On extraordinary Occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them..." ( make requests for action by either or both houses of Congress. The President cannot propose or introduce legislation -- this is why presidents say "I have asked Congress to do XYZ". They can only ask, they cannot command.)

6. "Receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers" ( act as the government's representative to foreign countries)

7. "Take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed" (the chief  law enforcement officer for federal laws)

8. Sign, or veto, laws passed by Congress. (the final set of eyeballs on a law before it goes into effect)

This job posting for a chief executive, someone who is a combination of a general, diplomat, police chief, and lawmaker, to carry out the practical day to day actions of governing, certainly makes us second guess that old childhood adage that "anyone can grow up to be president".

On the other hand, there is nothing in the US Constitution about fixing the economy, guaranteeing prosperity, saving our souls, healing the sick, feeling our pain, inspiring our youth, upholding the American Dream, standing up for traditional values, being a Real American, or any of the other magical powers we expect presidents to have.

But in the past, I have looked more at these magical powers, than the actual ones, in deciding who I vote for.

Eric Hoffer, in The True Believer, his study of why people are drawn to mass political movements, says that "Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for a lost faith in ourselves".  

Hoffer says elsewhere that "The ability to get along without an exceptional leader is the mark of social vigor."

Maybe this is why, in times of war or economic downturn, even in a democracy, we look for an "exceptional leader" to assume the kingly role of restoring our faith in ourselves, and our country.

And maybe in this next election, I, and perhaps all of us, need to grow up.

US Constitution Text


  1. I believe that by giving the Congress the power to declare war, the founders intended to put a check on the President's powers of commander-in-chief. I believe by splitting these duties, the founders did not intend to give the president the power to unilaterally take America into war.

    1. I think the president can send troops into battle on his or her own authority. Congress contols the funding of the military, and can pull the plug on same. The president would need the approval of congress to continue funding any action, but can initiate hostile action on their own.

    2. I think that's become common convention post world war II, but I'd like to believe its not what the founders intended.

  2. Good question--- I'm going to check The Federalist Papers...

  3. I checked. Never addressed issue in federalist papers. Suggested that President would "repel attacks" .... But not clear at which point a pre-emptive strike would count as repelling an attack. Of course, military action moved at a much slower pace in the 18th century v. today, so likely they might have assumed President would have time to consult with congress before doing anything other than defensive action. So I think your position makes good sense...