Note: This is part of a series of essays examining the prospects for electing a republican president in 2016 and ultimately reining in the modern imperial presidency through the lens of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist essays on the executive branch.
For the many admirers of 2008 “hope and change,” the Obama presidency has regrettably, six seasons in, read nothing like an Aaron Sorkin script (think “The American President”): Progressive idealism meets the challenges of national leadership head on, and, even though the president struggles to achieve political success in an imperfect world, our admiration for the person in the office softens our cynicism.
Then again, life in the Oval Office these days probably feels more like a “West Wing” episode and Dinesh D’Souza documentary folded into one, with fears of the further spread of Ebola in West Africa and throughout the world, an economy still on the skids, troublesome midterm elections, staff defections and ex-staff criticism, and the dangerous growth of the Islamic State, never mind people forgetting to lock the front door.
There is no way to write happy endings out of these troubles, despite the best efforts of the president’s speech writers. From the beginning, the Obama administration has doggedly attempted to live in a postmodern world, constructed or reconstructed by the president’s words, which, in imitation of the Divine Creation, are supposed to summon new realities into being.
Human affairs, however, follows a different logic, which is not the formulaic plot line of a Emmy-winning drama series. This rhetorical presidency has failed, in progressively obvious and dramatic ways, as unimpressed realities confront blurred thinking and unreal words. Support for President Obama’s signature domestic programs, the stimulus package and Obamacare, never high, has degraded over time as promised results were not achieved amidst serial instances of administrative high-handedness and incompetence.
Confidence in the president as commander-in-chief likewise continues to reach new lows as despots are simply undeterred by hearing they live in the wrong century or sit on the wrong side of history. Ebola need not become a serious threat—but is it any wonder many Americans expect that it will anyway, when we are asked to place our hope in careful-applied “protocols” by those unable to construct workable websites, responsibly schedule appointments at veterans’ hospitals, or perform other seemingly mundane administrative tasks? Six years into this administration, will anyone rest easy simply because the president says he’s hugged and kissed nurses who treated Ebola patients? Can anyone be satisfied with sizzle when there’s still no sign of the steak?
A Short History of Presidential Rhetoric
At least some elements of the rhetorical presidency are long-established on American soil. As we noted in our essay last week, almost 200 years ago President Andrew Jackson broke new ground in a number of important areas, not the least of which was his use of impassioned rhetoric to separate political friends and enemies.
Yet Alexis de Tocqueville notes, in “Democracy in America,” the much more modest political agenda behind the passion in President Jackson’s speeches:
Far from wanting to extend federal power, the current president represents, on the contrary, the party that wants to restrict that power to the clearest and most precise terms of the Constitution . . . . [F]ar from presenting himself as the champion of centralization, General Jackson is the agent of provincial jealousies; it is (if I can express myself so) decentralizing passions that brought him to sovereign power. He maintains himself and prospers by flattering these passions daily. General Jackson is the slave of the majority: he follows it in its wishes, its desires, its half-uncovered instincts, or rather he divines it and runs to place himself at its head.
Jackson, the agent of national prerogative and, simultaneously, slave to and master over public opinion, nevertheless sought to govern within the boundaries of the Constitution. In the century that followed, the president as public-spirited cowboy, political messiah, social engineer, and great communicator, unmoored from the Constitution and placed on rhetorical overdrive, became essential elements of the Progressive alternative to the founders’ republican presidency.
Republican Progressive Teddy Roosevelt embraced the “bully pulpit” (his term) as the fundamental tool of the presidency. So did his Democratic Progressive rival Woodrow Wilson, his buttoned-up engineering alter ego, Herbert Hoover, and his distant cousin, Franklin Roosevelt. At times, normalcy returned, encouraged by policy (Warring Harding), personality (Calvin Coolidge), and political necessity (Dwight Eisenhower). But almost every president since has been expected to be a rhetorical conjurer whatever other merits he may possess. Moreover, self-aggrandizing efforts to grow one’s celebrity and a willingness to set aside constitutional republican prescriptions have almost always gone hand-in hand in the last century.
Try Persuasion Instead of Manipulation
The point is not to idealize a presidency of competent technocrats who let their crisp implementation of well-chosen “protocols” do their talking. Abraham Lincoln, the greatest orator in American political history, wasn’t just the first Republican president, but a model republican long before he was president. But that was because he didn’t speak from a bully pulpit, alternating the cadences of the popular revivalist with those of the fiery prophet. Instead, he thought well enough of his audience to try to persuade them, over and over again working out the consequences of common principles and ideas, defined with fairness but precision in his most important speeches.
Consider, for example, the preface to one of Lincoln’s greatest speeches, his 1854 address at Peoria:
I do not rise to speak now, if I can stipulate with the audience to meet me here at half-past six or at seven o’clock. It is now several minutes past five, and Judge [and Senator Stephen] Douglas has spoken over three hours. If you hear me at all, I wish you to hear me through. It will take me as long as it has taken him. That will carry us beyond eight o’clock at night. Now, every one of you who can remain that long can just as well get his supper, meet me at seven, and remain an hour or two later. The Judge has already informed you that he is to have an hour to reply to me. I doubt not but you have been a little surprised to learn that I have consented to give one of his high reputation and known ability this advantage of me. Indeed, my consenting to it, though reluctant, was not wholly unselfish, for I suspected, if it were understood that the Judge was entirely done, you Democrats would leave and not hear me; but by giving him the close, I felt confident you would stay for the fun of hearing him skin me.
In his typically self-deprecating and good-humored way, Lincoln only partially disguised his real hope: to win some of Douglas’s Democratic partisans to his cause (after a good supper had put them in the mood for four more hours of speeches). He assumed here and throughout his political career that, if right, he could win many to his cause, since he was, at his best, pointing them to policies and principles grounded in a reality accessible to and, at least in part, experienced by all. His model was not the magician, but the geometer, hoping, like Euclid, to work out the consequences of given (political) first principles.
What Makes a President Different from a Monarch
All this fits very well with the model of the presidency outlined by the exceptionally clear-headed Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 69. There, responding to anti-federalist claims that the American executive would quickly become a New World imitation of the British monarchy, Hamilton labored to show just how constrained the president was by the other legs of the republican stool: the people, the Constitution, and the coordinate branches of the federal government.
While the king could make war and peace at his pleasure, the president, although commander-in-chief, required congressional authorization to do the same. While the king possessed an absolute veto, the president would have only a qualified one. Most fundamentally, while the king held perpetual, hereditary, unaccountable office, the president would be elected for a fixed term and subject to impeachment and removal if he betrayed the Constitution. The president is required “from time to time [to] 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”—measures that become law only if he can persuade Congress to adopt them.
Such an executive role was enough for many who served in the office for a century. But such a role no longer satisfies the ambitions of most would-be presidents in our day, Democrats and Republicans alike.
President Obama has, more than once, acknowledged with apparent lament that he does not possess imperial power. Although his actions, at times, have suggested otherwise, the wise constitutional constraints the founders imposed, if followed, require that presidents stick closer to both justice and reality than we can expect from any democratized president of the people or monarchized president by proclamation.
The lesson in all of this as we look to 2016 is that if we wish to have a more modest government, we need to elect a more modest man. It goes without saying such an individual will be ambitious and desire public acclaim. But it’s more likely that an individual content to live within the boundaries that the Constitution and nature prescribe will gratify his ambition by playing the part of a leader of a republic, not a life-imitating-art sympathetic idealist, or a famous-for-being-famous hardened and cynical luminary. In other words, celebrities, pundits, and politicians—Left, center, and Right—who view, hew, and sometimes pursue the presidency as the lead part in a drama, reality television show, or documentary film will continue to give us a less republican political reality.