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Choosing an Energetic President


As we enter the last week of the midterm campaign, we find ourselves ringside in a battle between President Obama’s vanity and Democratic Senate candidate’s cynicism.

It seems the president’s sense of self-importance won’t allow him to stop saying things unhelpful to Democrats trying to free themselves from the heavy weight of his unpopularity by wearing camouflage jackets, rediscovering their drawl, and ostentatiously standing up for local industries on the wrong side of environmental history.

First President Obama claimed that “every single one” of his policies is “on the ballot” this fall. Then he reminded voters that the endangered red state Democrats are “all folks who vote with me” and who “have supported my agenda in Congress.” Most recently, his spokesman contradicted Alaska Senator Mark Begich’s claim that Mr. Obama, with just two years left on the job, was “irrelevant,” despite the support Mr. Begich received, with several layers of irony, from once and future (?) co-president Bill Clinton (who had to defend his own relevance after the Republican electoral tsunami of 1994). Wonder who Mr. Clinton thinks should be leading the party?

Three rounds in, vanity appears to be ahead of cynicism on points, as President Obama simply won’t let others be the changed candidates they want to be. Fearing a November 3rd knockout, most Democratic operatives, it seems, would like nothing more than for Mr. Obama to find a new hobby.

He might even try being president.

We’ve written about the dangers of a hegemonic presidency, inspired by President Obama’s unprecedented use of executive orders, among other violations of the separation of powers. But what is equally striking–and equally dangerous in its own way–is his tendency to neglect the core duties of his executive office as he acts aggressively in areas properly assigned to others.

  • The president instructs the Justice Department not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act before the Supreme Court, but tells the Court to its face that it misread the First Amendment in striking down campaign finance restrictions and then opines that his own evolving views on gay marriage now require the Court to nationalize it as soon as politically expedient.
  • U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement saves money by releasing 2,200 detainees, including 629 with what it (and the Administration) falsely claimed were only low level criminal records, while the president prepares an executive order that will essentially rewrite American immigration policy–not just without Congressional consent, but in terms that could probably not win the votes of 10% of the members of Congress (whatever their private views might be). 

More could be said about his Administration’s failure to enforce laws like Obamacare or passivity in the face of growing health and military threats (from) abroad. But what a former aide to Harry Reid said about the president’s approach to the fall campaign might be said about his approach to the presidency in general: “President Obama doesn’t like to get his hands dirty. He seemingly floats above it all.”

Unfortunately, the presidency, as designed, requires a very different sort of person: one who will take up his constitutional responsibilities (but only those responsibilities) with vigor. As Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist 70, far from being inconsistent with republican and constitutional government, “[e]nergy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.”

After showing that the Electoral College would likely produce the election of a republican president (Federalist 68) and suggesting that American presidents would be constrained to remain republicans in office, if not by their own design, then by the Constitution, the people, and the other branches of government (Federalist 69), Hamilton posits that only the energetic execution of the office will serve its republican purpose.

Why? Because an “energetic” president would be best able to secure:

  1. the protection of the community against foreign attacks;
  2. the steady administration of the laws;
  3. the protection of property, and
  4. the people’s liberty “against the enterprises of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy.” 

Obviously, there are many ways that energy, oriented in the wrong direction, could be harmful to the American republic. But, as Hamilton argues:

A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government. 

Thus Hamilton’s argument in Federalist 70 follows the earlier argument he had made in Federalist 23 regarding the energy requisite to carry out the essential tasks of the federal government:

This is one of those truths which, to a correct and unprejudiced mind, carries its own evidence along with it; and may be obscured, but cannot be made plainer by argument or reasoning. It rests upon axioms as simple as they are universal; the means ought to be proportioned to the end; the persons, from whose agency the attainment of any end is expected, ought to possess the means by which it is to be attained. 

Debate all you wish whether the federal government in general or the president in particular ought to be responsible for accomplishing x, y, or z. But once you’ve said ‘yes,’ it will be no boon to the people’s liberty or security if you withhold the power necessary to actually accomplish the given task.

For the president to be the servant-leader he was expected to be, Hamilton argued, he must be able to employ with confidence the powers that he had been granted. There ought to be no doubt that his energetic employment of his constitutional means for the sake of constitutional ends would be beyond reproof.

Hamilton never doubted that trouble would always be around the corner for Americans as it had been for the Romans and for other once-republican regimes. Any hope that an executive’s republican character and obedience to his parchment powers alone could secure the United States against enemies both foreign and domestic was the stuff of stargazing. He must be of the right stuff to execute his office when danger approached. Here, once again, we can with little doubt think of Hamilton writing Federalist 70 with George Washington in mind.

Choosing an energetic president means choosing someone willing to embrace the often unglamorous tasks enumerated above–and leaving the Court to be the court and the Congress to be the Congress, and pundits, celebrities, and other self-centered egoists to do their business as well. There will, in the end, be plenty of room for admiration from a grateful people more secure in their person, their property, and their liberty because the president knew what his business was, and energetically pursued his business well.

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.