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Who Needs a President, Anyway?

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I recently began reading Dana D. Nelson’s Bad for Democracy, and with the presidential election less than a week away the timing was great. Her thesis is that we have developed a concept of "presidentialism" in which Americans largely forsake traditional notions of civic duty in exchange for a quadrennial vote for the head of the executive branch, with the expectation that the executive will obviate the need for further involvement. Right now is an especially good time to reflect on what we expect from a president, and whether any of those expectations have been displaced from our own obligations.

As Nelson points out, America did not start with a president. The Articles of Confederation were the founding documents of American government and they did not provide for one. We existed as a nation without a president from their final ratification in 1781 until the Constitution replaced them in 1789. Not a long time, obviously, but its life was cut short not by emergency (I don’t think Shays’ Rebellion represented an existential threat to the young nation) but at the urging of those in favor of an expanded central government. She not only argues against the slowly expanding power of the president but even raises the provocative question of whether one is needed at all. The immediate, sarcastic response is to ask if just such a thing has not already been the case the last few years, but behind such a flip answer is a real point: What exactly has the president done over the last few years that has served us well? Given the relentless corruption and incompetence it does not take much effort to make the case that a substantial diminution of the president’s role would at the very least limit the harm s/he can do.

While we are looking back at pre-Constitution America why not look at the role presidential advocates envisioned? Nelson references Federalist #69, where Alexander Hamilton anticipates a president whose

authority would be nominally the same with that of the king of Great Britain, but in substance much inferior to it. It would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces, as first General and admiral of the Confederacy; while that of the British king extends to the declaring of war and to the raising and regulating of fleets and armies — all which, by the Constitution under consideration, would appertain to the legislature.

That is in fact what happened, but the modest role described by Hamilton bears little resemblance to the exalted one we currently have. It has evolved from commander in chief as a role to Commander-In-Chief as a title. Reading the rest of the section makes it clear that Hamilton expected states to have standing militias commanded by governors but no standing army at the disposal of the president. If we can ask if a president is even necessary we can ask if a standing army is as well. Certainly in a time of economic crisis with no military threat on our borders it should be safe to ask if it is a luxury. Historically America has kept a smaller active duty military during peacetime and raised the personnel necessary during war. Why shouldn’t we say, let’s wind down Iraq, negotiate some kind of agreement in Afghanistan and reduce our military footprint? At the moment we do not need ten times the soldiers we had a century ago. If another country tries to invade there will be plenty of volunteers, have no worry. And it will be that much less temptation for the White House.

These ideas might seem completely unrealistic or unworkable, but I think they are important to keep in mind. If nothing else it would stretch the outer limits of debate for any discussion of how to undo the excesses of the president (and the presidency itself over time). If we want to simply reject the theory of the unitary executive then we will roll back presidentialism to Reagan-era levels. And of course if that is where the marker is set then the struggle happens in front of it. Suggesting a larger curtailing, however, even back to the very proposal of a presidency, might just make us start thinking of new possibilities – and about exercising some of the muscles of the body politic that have perhaps begun to atrophy. If we cannot just cast a quadrennial ballot for an ever more powerful ruler whom we expect to Take Care Of Everything we may start to engage in civic life in ways that quietly but democratically prune back the power of the executive branch.

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