The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power

About the Book

The Bush years gave rise to fears of a resurgent Imperial Presidency. Those fears are justified, but the problem cannot be solved simply by bringing a new administration to power. In his provocative book, The Cult of the Presidency, Gene Healy argues that the fault lies not in our leaders but in ourselves. When our scholars lionize presidents who break free from constitutional restraints, when our columnists and talking heads repeatedly call upon the “commander in chief ” to dream great dreams and seek the power to achieve them—when voters look to the president for salvation from all problems great and small—should we really be surprised that the presidency has burst its constitutional bonds and grown powerful enough to threaten American liberty?

The Cult of the Presidency takes a step back from the ongoing red team/​blue team combat and shows that, at bottom, conservatives and liberals agree on the boundless nature of presidential responsibility. For both camps, it is the president’s job to grow the economy, teach our children well, provide seamless protection from terrorist threats, and rescue Americans from spiritual malaise. Very few Americans seem to think it odd, says Healy, “when presidential candidates talk as if they’re running for a job that’s a combination of guardian angel, shaman, and supreme warlord of the earth.”

Healy takes aim at that unconfined conception of presidential responsibility, identifying it as the source of much of our political woe and some of the gravest threats to our liberties. If the public expects the president to heal everything that ails us, the president is going to demand—or seize—the power necessary to handle that responsibility.

Interweaving historical scholarship, legal analysis, and trenchant cultural commentary, The Cult of the Presidency traces America’s decades‐​long drift from the Framers’ vision for the presidency: a constitutionally constrained chief magistrate charged with faithful execution of the laws. Restoring that vision will require a Congress and a Court willing to check executive power, but Healy emphasizes that there is no simple legislative or judicial “fix” to the problems of the presidency. Unless Americans change what we ask of the office—no longer demanding what we should not want and cannot have—we’ll get what, in a sense, we deserve.

About the Author

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute. His research interests include executive power and the role of the presidency, as well as federalism and overcriminalization. He is the author of False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency; The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power; and editor of Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything. Healy holds a B.A. from Georgetown University and a J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School.

What Others Have Said

“This splendid book provides the best account yet of how the Imperial Presidency, abetted by Democrats and Republicans alike, came to pose a clear and present danger to our republic.”
—Andrew J. Bacevich, Author, The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War

“Rhetorical—and related—excesses are inherent in the modern presidency. This is so for reasons brilliantly explored in the year’s most pertinent and sobering public affairs book, The Cult of the Presidency.
—George F. Will, Newsweek

“Gene Healy wrote “The Cult of the Presidency”, a book decrying the unrealistic expectations Americans have of their presidents. The book was written while Barack Obama’s career was still on the launch pad, yet it describes with uncanny prescience the atmosphere that allowed him to soar.”
The Economist

“It’s more than just a guide to why you shouldn’t expect too much from the executive: It’s a history of how we’ve come to view the president as central to not only our politics but our national conception of self. Its emphasis on the limitations of the president are as relevant to those who seek to make the state work better as to those who seek to imprison it. Moreover, Healy is a graceful, funny, and fluid writer. It was, by far, the best political book I read this year.”
—Ezra Klein, The American Prospect

The Cult of the Presidency provides a history of the office of the presidency. It’s a fascinating narrative of how the office that was meant to be little more than an administrator of the nation’s laws (George Washington referred to it as “chief magistrate”) has grown into the equivalent of an elected monarch.”
—Radley Balko, Reason

“Is there anything the president of the United States can’t do? In an election year it seems most people think not. There’s certainly nothing the candidates won’t promise. Our politicians’ outlandish promises and the fact that people seem to buy them make Gene Healy’s new book one of the most important books of the year.”
—J.H. Huebert, Orange County Register

“An excellent book. The author is an editor at the libertarian Cato Institute, so I looked forward to some sermonizing about limited government, self‐​support, executive restraint, and liberty. The book didn’t disappoint. Its target is the exaggerated expectations we have come to have of the office. The next president will be a person with an even more galaxy‐​sized sense of his (or her) own importance. The fault is not in them, after all, it’s in us. Look at who we’ve chosen!”
—John Derbyshire, National Review Online

“Should Healy’s wonderfully informative, perception shifting examination of the wayward American executive receive the attention it so richly deserves, it may serve as a perfect literary tonic for our historical and cultural amnesia.”
—Shawn Macomber, American Spectator

“Mr. Healy chronicles the expansion of presidential power without sparing any party or faction. He argues that the country’s high hopes for the president often doom him to failure: A president cannot possibly succeed at everything now expected of the office. These high, even audacious hopes are more often than not dashed. This explains why grand visions of the presidency nevertheless coincide with increased public cynicism about politics and government. Healy’s book may not lead to a reappraisal of presidential power, but it could save gullible voters some disappointment.”
—W. James Antle III, The Washington Times

“A must‐​read book on presidential power.”

“Gene Healy’s well‐​researched, lucidly written historical overview of the American presidency could not be timelier with Americans about to elect a new president. This study provides a reality check for where we should not want future presidents to go.”
—John W. Dean, Former Nixon White House Counsel
Author, Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive and Judicial Branches

“Popular perceptions often thoughtlessly equate activist presidents with great ones. Gene Healy makes a compelling case that the opposite proposition lies closer to the truth. In this thorough historical analysis, Healy lays bare the deeper risks of an expansionist view of the presidency. Defenders of limited government learn from Healy that the Congress is not the only branch of government that continually seeks to expand its powers beyond its proper constitutional limits.”
—Richard A. Epstein, James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law, University of Chicago Law School

“Gene Healy provides an important public service by puncturing the inflated hopes and dreams of an all‐​wise, informed, and well‐​intentioned president. This fundamentally flawed conception of executive power makes us less safe, less free, and less constitutional.”
—Louis Fisher, Author, Presidential War Power

“‘Cult’ is precisely the word, because the president’s omnibus job description requires above all that he serve as high priest in America’s civil religion. Healy’s argument for restoring the presidency to its constitutional limits is as persuasive as his argument for why we, the people, will probably never permit it.”
—Walter A. McDougal, Pulitzer Prize‐​winning historian
Author, Throes of Democracy: The American Civil War Era 1829–1877

“The Founders intended for the American President to be deferential to Congress. So what happened? Gene Healy explains in this erudite survey, stretching over 250 fascinating years of U.S. history.”
—Jim Pinkerton, Assistant to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and columnist for Newsday

“In a superb new book, Gene Healy documents the multiple ways our political system has been corrupted by an out‐​of‐​control, unchecked Executive that could not be any more antithetical to the presidency of limited powers and modest goals the Framers gave us in 1787.”
—Glenn Greenwald, author, How Would a Patriot Act?

The Cult of the Presidency’s greatest strengths are in illustrating how much the modern presidency differs from the executive office the framers of the Constitution envisioned and in providing ample evidence of how real and massive the president’s powers are in modern America. Although he ends on an optimistic note about the prospects for the future, in the Age of Obama it is not clear that new limitations on the office of the presidency will materialize anytime soon.”
—Ryan W. McMaken, The Independent Review