White House

The Presidency Matters Far Too Much

(Jason Reed/Reuters)
The office’s outsized importance is immensely harmful to our national life — and not at all what our Founders intended.

Today is Election Day, as surely no National Review reader needs to be reminded. There are hundreds of contests going on today across the country. But one now looms above the rest: the race for the presidency. Down-ticket elections tend to have a far greater effect on peoples’ lives. Yet the presidential contest is the one people care about the most; it attracts the most media attention, money, and partisan rancor. And this state of affairs is immensely harmful to national life.

The presidency has always mattered a great deal, to be sure. But for all his enumerated powers, the president is, ultimately, an executive officer, in the most literal sense: His job is to “take care that the laws [passed by Congress] be faithfully executed.” This naturally gives him a strong place in the constitutional order. What it ought not give him is the outsized importance he has now.

The presidency has become an avatar for the two opposing forces in American politics, one through which each hopes not merely to implement its preferred policies but also to reaffirm its sense of ultimate rectitude. This is the product of many factors. One, perhaps the most obvious, is the growth of government, particularly inasmuch as that growth has taken place beyond the strictures established by the Constitution. Congress, messy as it may be, is supposed to provide a sense of direct accountability to the people. But in part because of its messiness, it has increasingly delegated power to the executive. And as the executive’s power has grown, the importance of controlling the White House has grown, too, because that power, aside from being desirable in and of itself, provides a guarantee against political recriminations from the other side. The presidency thus more resembles a monarchy sought by opposing dynasties than an office in a constitutional republic, something akin to what George Washington once rightly called “a frightful despotism”:

The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

As more and more policymaking of consequence leaves the parts of our political process to which people feel most directly connected, the presidency takes on a bloated importance in effecting meaningful change. A considerable amount of what most affects peoples’ lives is still determined locally. But enough of it is determined federally that lots of people believe only a vote for president can alter their lives for the better (or for the worse).

That’s half the picture. The other half is the modern media environment. For today’s media, right, left, and center, the singularity of the presidency provides a convenient focus on which to project all of the nation’s political drama. Congress is not only messy, but multitudinous; there is only one president, and in an attention-starved, sensationalist age, it is much easier and much more dramatic to follow his every word and action, to infuse every story involving him with such weight as to make it seem the most important thing ever to happen in America. Never mind that so much in our national life happens without the president’s say or influence; that stuff is hard to understand and cover, especially for a press corps that remains disproportionately D.C.-based. And the incentive runs just as strongly the other way: The media platform the office provides is grand; even the platform one gets from running for president attracts attention-seekers and self-promoters who see no downside to contributing to the continuing degradation of our national life.

As president, Donald Trump has both worsened and been helpless to reverse many of these trends. And though he often does deliberately provoke the Left, it is not entirely his fault that the Left has responded to his provocations by ratcheting up its psychic commitment to holding the office of the presidency, loathing him so much that simply continuing to think of him as occupying the Oval Office is a source of distress. Were the Left’s preferred response to seek to restore the office to its rightful place in our constitutional order, it would be harder to find fault with. But Joe Biden began his campaign by promising to “heal the soul of this nation,” and has returned to that promise throughout his campaign, as though it were something any president could accomplish. Trump has violated expectations of presidential behavior repeatedly, in such a way that one could make an argument, however feeble, that, if we are to have the overly important presidency that we have now, we need a president whose behavior redounds to the benefit of our national life instead of embittering it. But Biden is no more that guy than Trump is; his campaign has given us no indication that he wishes to do anything to rein in the office he seeks.

Indeed, Biden would almost certainly accelerate the shift toward a national, president-centric politics, even if his presence in the White House provided a temporary balm to the psychic distress Trump’s presidency has caused the Left. As for the other balm Biden promises — that “heal the soul of this nation” bit — he can’t deliver it any more than any president could. If anything, our modern imperial presidency needs to be exorcised from the soul of the nation. Perhaps on some future Election Day, things will be different — perhaps, by some miracle of civic engagement and revitalization, the other offices, divisions, and power sources in this country will someday regain their proper importance. Or perhaps the executive-centric rancor of today’s national life will only continue to get worse.

In this as in all things, it is up to us to decide.


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