Commentary

Presidents Day: What’s to Celebrate?

Deals on used cars, discount mattresses and not so much as an honorific doodle of Teddy Roosevelt on Google’s homepage — have we drifted away from the true spirit of Presidents Day?

Real patriots spend the third Monday in February thinking about the presidency. In fact, I spent the day reading Thinking About the Presidency, a new book by the distinguished University of Chicago political scientist William G. Howell. And now I think we’re screwed.

If there’s ever a War on Presidents Day, sign me up.”

The book’s subtitle is “the Primacy of Power,” reflecting Howell’s view that “power is the president’s North Star. … The need to acquire, protect, and expand power is built into the office of the presidency itself, and it quickly takes hold of whoever temporarily bears the title of chief executive.”

The demands Americans place on the presidency are virtually boundless: They “invest in the president their highest aspirations not just for the federal government, but for the general polity, for their communities and families, and for their own private lives.” Responding to the incentives that confront them, presidents naturally seek power to meet the insatiable public demands for presidential salvation.

Thus, Howell writes, “from nearly the moment he assumes office, the most self-effacing presidential candidate will quickly be transformed into a great apologist for presidential power.”

You wouldn’t exactly call President Obama “self-effacing.” But his background as a former constitutional law professor and liberal state senator, and his campaign speeches denouncing “unchecked presidential power,” led some liberals to believe he’d be “our first civil libertarian president.”

And yet, since assuming office, Obama has broken more campaign-trail promises on executive power than you could fit into a Buzzfeed listicle. A sample:

  • “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack [absent] an actual or imminent threat.” But “kinetic military action” against Libya is a different story entirely.
  • “No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient.” Still, taking care that Obamacare’s firm legislative deadlines are faithfully adhered to would be really inconvenient before the midterms.
  • “We’re not going to use signing statements as a way of doing an end run around Congress.” Unless Congress gets out of line and defunds my czars.
  • “No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime.” Actually, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the president has “continued to block reform and has even sought to expand NSL powers.”

Obama didn’t set out to forge a legacy as the Surveillance State’s greatest champion, any more than President George W. Bush had an ideological precommitment to vastly expanding presidential power over the economy. But as Howell notes, “presidents can ill afford to repudiate any power that might enable them to address the onslaught of expectations put before them.”

As law professor Garrett Epps has noted, the Framers did something new under the sun with the creation of the presidency. But “it wasn’t their best work.” The Framers thought they’d made separation of powers largely self-executing: Ambition would counteract ambition, so that, in Madison’s words, “the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.”

But the mechanism doesn’t work as planned: The private interests of individual congressmen lead them to cede power to the executive branch and focus on reelection. Congress rarely guards its institutional turf — yet every president ends up leaving the presidency stronger than he found it.

The results are nothing to celebrate. Every year, there are conservatives who complain about a “War on Christmas.” If there’s ever a War on Presidents Day, sign me up.

Gene Healy, a Washington Examiner columnist, is vice president at the Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency.