Conservative historian Forrest McDonald expressed a common view when he wrote in 1994 that “the presidency has been responsible for less harm and more good, in the nation and the world, than perhaps any other secular institution in the world.”
It’s not hard to think of other institutions that better justify McDonald’s praise. The independent judiciary? Market capitalism? The family? Casual Fridays? But more to the point, is the presidency still a “secular institution”?
If it is, that’s hard to discern by listening to our current front‐runners in the 2008 race, who talk as if they’re running for a job that’s a combination of guardian angel, shaman, and Supreme Warlord of the Earth.
John McCain has invoked Teddy Roosevelt as a role model, noting that the Trustbuster “liberally interpreted the constitutional authority of the office” and “nourished the soul of a great nation.” Barack Obama sees soul‐nourishing as part of the president’s job, too. As his 2004 keynote address to the Democratic Convention made clear, the “Audacity of Hope” signifies the eternal promise of redemption through presidential politics. (Is “audacity” really the right word for that kind of hope?).
Both men also see the president’s corporeal responsibilities as boundless — ranging from providing liberty the world over to establishing a “Credit Card Bill of Rights” that would ban certain charges and ensure “prompt and fair crediting of cardholder payments.”
Our first president had a far narrower view of the office’s powers and responsibilities. And since the holiday we’re enjoying is still officially known as “Washington’s Birthday,” perhaps there’s something to be learned from his comparatively restrained view of the office.
It’s common these days, especially after 9/11, to hear people call the president “our commander‐in‐chief” — as if he’s the leader of society as a whole, rather than just the head of the U.S. military. But Washington didn’t go around calling himself everybody’s commander‐in‐chief. Most often he referred to himself as merely the “chief magistrate.”