Commentary

The Therapeutic Presidency

With Bill Clinton spending his time listening to children recite The Little Engine That Could and Bob Dole pontificating about the quality of Hollywood movies, it is difficult to remember that the president’s primary responsibility as set forth in the Constitution is to conduct America’s foreign policy. Yet that clearly was the intent of the Founders. Not only is the president made commander in chief of the armed forces, but he is tasked with receiving the representatives of foreign governments, appointing America’s own diplomatic envoys, and negotiating treaties and other agreements.

How did we get from the president as steward of foreign policy to the president as crusader for literacy or guardian of public morals? It has been a gradual, almost insidious, process. Ambitious chief executives increasingly sought to play the dominant role in setting the domestic policy agenda, especially on economic issues. Throughout the 20th century voters have tended to elect presidents because of their apparent domestic rather than foreign policy expertise, sometimes with horrific results. Woodrow Wilson, elected to implement an economic “reform” program at home, ended up leading the nation during World War I and its aftermath. An utter neophyte in international affairs, Wilson pursued a disastrous foreign policy the naivete of which was exceeded only by its arrogance.

In the past few decades, however, we have gone beyond expecting our presidents to have extensive domestic economic agendas. Increasingly, the chief executive is playing the role of tribal chieftain, seeking to reassure Americans when they are insecure, comfort them when they suffer a natural disaster or other calamity, and instruct them in how to live upright and constructive lives. Few voices speak out against such saccharin paternalism and ask what relevance such activities have to the president’s constitutional role.

We are now witnessing the emergence of a full-blown therapeutic presidency. Candidates are obligated to show that they have an abundance of “compassion” and the solution to every imaginable social problem, from finding a cure for AIDS to raising happy and well-adjusted children.

The therapeutic presidency is unhealthy on several levels. First, it is symptomatic of the trend toward not merely intrusive but virtually unlimited government. Even the architects of the New Deal and the Great Society generally confined their schemes for government activism to issues that were at least arguably matters of public policy. The current presidential aspirants seem reluctant to concede that there is any aspect of human behavior that is not a subject of government concern or responsibility.

Second, the therapeutic presidency creates unrealistic expectations about the effectiveness of political leadership. It is a dubious enough assumption that the election of a particular president will determine the destiny of the huge, dynamic American economy. (Several other factors, especially the monetary policy pursued by the Federal Reserve Board, are probably more important.) But many of the issues emphasized by Clinton and Dole involve extraordinarily complex social and psychological factors — areas in which there are no conceivable governmental solutions. Creating the impression that the occupant of the White House has the answers to such problems merely fosters public disillusionment when, by the time of the next election, it is evident that he did not.

Perhaps worst of all, the requirements of the therapeutic presidency distract the president from his legitimate responsibilities. Dole’s views on movies or the Clintons’ theories of child rearing should not matter — and one would hope, do not matter — to most Americans. But how the president conducts the nation’s foreign policy during the next four years can matter a great deal.

It will be small comfort if the president seizes every photo opportunity to demonstrate “compassion” at home but causes the republic to blunder into war abroad. The president’s proper focus should be on dealing with terrorism, assessing such adverse geopolitical developments as the emerging Moscow-Beijing axis, encouraging allies and clients to take greater responsibility for their own defense, and extricating American troops from the Bosnian morass. That is an exceedingly full agenda for even the most competent chief executive.

Instead of looking for a comforting father figure, voters need to place greater importance on the foreign policy views and expertise of presidential candidates. Constitutionally, the president is America’s steward of foreign affairs, not the national therapist.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.