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Monday, January 21, 2013

The Left-Wing Conservative: 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 US presidency. 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 the discussion around the presidential primary race shows how we still, in our heart of hearts, wish for a king.

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, and perhaps you, have focused 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 after this last election, I, and perhaps all of us, need to grow up.

US Constitution Text

*This blog previously appeared in earlier form as "Thoughts on Politics - Viva el Presidente!"


  1. I think the power of the commander in chief has grown more as a result of the UN charter's attempt to limit the reasons one country may declare war on another. I believe the founders wanted the power to declare war to rest with Congress, but once war was declared, the President wouldn't have to look over his shoulder on the the conduct of the war. These days the President generally looks to Congress for an authorization to use force. There was a good opinion piece in today's Philadelphia Inquirer. The author pointed to 5 presidents (Jackson, Lincoln, McKinley, FDR, and Reagan) whose time in office were consequential. In the author's opinion - which I think follows your argument - that in-spite of all the money spent on campaigns and all the hype purporting that the fate of the nation lies in the decisions made on who will be President - they actual ability of the President to fundamentally change the nation is limited.

  2. Most of the dysfunction in our government lies with the Legislative Branch. As highlighted in your blog entry, the President can only ask for legislation. He is not the one to compromise away the "teeth" in any piece of legislation by creating loopholes and he doesn't throw in paragraphs for "pork-barrel" spending or favors for special interest groups (see yesterday's NY Times, page 1, "Fiscal Footnote: Big Senate Gift to Drug Maker" for a great example of this phenomenon).

  3. For examples of executive branch dysfunction and pork, please see energy department under Chu under Obama