What moved Barack Obama to seek the presidency was “the basic idea of empathy” and the notion that if “we see somebody down and out … we care for them.” Republican John McCain explained that he was running “to inspire a generation of Americans to serve a cause greater than their self‐interest.”
Noble sentiments, to be sure, but in the original constitutional scheme, the president was neither Empath‐in‐Chief nor a national life coach. His role was to faithfully execute the laws, defend the country from attack, and check Congress with the veto power whenever it exceeded its constitutional bounds.
What we expect the president to do
But there’s a reason candidates talk the way they do. Their rhetoric faithfully reflects the public’s outsized expectations for the office: Grow the economy. Give us better, cheaper healthcare. Protect us from hurricanes. Stop global warming. Bring peace to the Middle East. Lead us. Inspire us. We crave a spiritual superhero, not just someone who will “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.”
As the conventions celebrate the anointed, it’s worth exploring how our long slide away from the Founding Fathers’ modest notion of presidential responsibility has left us with a dysfunctional politics and a bloated imperial presidency.
The McCain campaign has found its groove lately by skewering Mr. Obama’s quasi‐messianic pretensions. A recent McCain campaign ad, mockingly titled “The One,” mixes clips of Obama speeches with Charlton Heston as Moses, parting the waters. “And the world shall receive [Obama’s] blessings,” the narrator intones. It’s an effective ad, playing on the grating arrogance that periodically emerges from the Obama campaign. As Michele Obama said in February 2008: “Barack Obama is the only person in this race who understands that, that before we can work on the problems, we have to fix our souls. Our souls are broken in this nation.”
But make no mistake: Both parties view the president as our national guardian and redeemer, a figure entrusted with the care of America’s very soul.
It’s a theme that President Bush has sounded repeatedly. And it’s practically de rigueur for GOP presidential contenders. When Mike Huckabee announced his candidacy in January 2007, he said he was running because “America needs positive, optimistic leadership to kind of turn this country around, to see a revival of our national soul….”
Mr. McCain, too, sees the president as a soul‐healer. His hero, Teddy Roosevelt, was a great president, McCain insists, because he “liberally interpreted the constitutional authority of the office,” and “nourished the soul of a great nation.”
If soul‐nourishing is part of the president’s job, what isn’t?
That grandiose conception of the president’s role couldn’t be further from how our Founding Fathers saw the office. As The Federalist No. 69 tells us, the Constitution’s chief executive officer had an important job, but he’d have “no particle of spiritual jurisdiction.” Instead, as presidential scholar Jeffrey K. Tulis explains, unlike “polities that attempt to shape the souls of their citizenry and foster certain excellences or moral qualities by penetrating deeply into the ‘private’ sphere, the founders wanted their government to be limited to establishing and securing such a sphere.”