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The Constitutional Presidency

What makes a good president? With primary elections essentially over and November looming on the political horizon, this question is both too late and very timely. The same question was asked even before the creation of the executive office, and the answers proposed since that time are innumerable. Karl Rove, author and then-chief political advisor to the younger President Bush, delivered a lecture at the University of Utah in 2002 in which he identified a number of characteristics of “presidential greatness”—a clear vision with clear goals, “internal self-confidence,” and independence from opinion polls, to name a few. Other answers put forward over the years might be virtue, authenticity, team-building capacity, or demonstrable and sincere care for all Americans.

When evaluating past presidents by this rubric, one can easily distinguish between the great “leaders of men” and those more obscure individuals who have held the nation’s highest office. We remember the righteous integrity of Washington, the unwavering conviction of Lincoln, the unprecedented first 100 days of the latter Roosevelt, and the stalwart resoluteness of Reagan. Even men such as Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump square with most of these categories.  I would mention those presidents who certainly do not pass muster with this rubric, but their names are already mostly lost upon the popular conscience as a result.

One possible answer to the question of what makes a good president—an answer which, both surprisingly and unsurprisingly, fails to surface in these conversations—is that a good president is one who abides by the Constitution he is sworn to preserve. Every candidate who takes the oath of office affirms that he will “faithfully execute” it, and that he will “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States” (art. II § 1). If the Constitution is indeed the “supreme Law of the Land” (art. VI), it makes sense that a president’s adherence to that document should have at least some bearing on how he is evaluated both during and after his term of office.

What does the Constitution have to say about the presidency? Frankly, not much. Article II, sections two and three (the portions describing the duties of the president), barely exceed 300 words.According to these two sections (and a brief passage of Article I section 7), the president has five major responsibilities—to sign or veto legislation passed by Congress, to command the armed forces, to make treaties and receive diplomats, to make federal appointments, and to recommend “necessary and expedient” measures to Congress and “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” These stipulations encompass the entirety of executive authority found in the Constitution.

I think it is very safe to say that the office of president has evolved beyond what any of the Founders envisioned. That is not necessarily bad per se, but with such evolution have come potential areas of concern. The president is now very much a legislator (a phase in evolution which the Supreme Court has also witnessed). He is also the single greatest economic regulator and foreign (and domestic) policy maker. The causes of this evolution are many and multifaceted, but the greatest leaps out-of-bounds for the presidency were taken during times of crisis: the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s, the American Civil War, American entry into World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II.With each catalyst, government power (particularly executive power) became progressively more centralized, as Americans both willingly and unwillingly surrendered their rights to the state.

Granted, there are some ways in which the evolution of the presidency is fitting for a nation that has also evolved. In 2010 then-Congressman Mike Pence delivered a speech at Hillsdale College in which he described the presidency as “the most visible thread that runs through the tapestry of the American government […] it sets the tone for the other branches and spurs the expectations of the people.” (As an aside: the Reader would be well-served to read Pence’s address in its entirety). In this sense, the presidency has grown appropriately to match the nation. Also granted, many, if not all, of the characteristics listed previously are excellent traits for a president to possess. However, I would suggest that a president’s legacy should be largely defined by his commitment to the Constitution, before most other considerations.

What happens when we view American presidential history through this lens, as opposed to a race-class-gender lens or a purely economic lens? Which presidents are unseated from their veritable thrones in American politics? Two such come to mind. Franklin D. Roosevelt, mastermind behind the New Deal, expanded centralized government power in a truly unprecedented manner. His policies of excessive taxation, government control of banks, court-packing scheme, and regulation of businesses greatly overextended the powers of his office. Shockwaves from his 12-year tenure are still felt today in the form of social security, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Federal Housing Administration, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. While FDR served as a source of popular encouragement for many Americans during the Depression and World War II, his policies set a new trajectory for both the nation and the office. Second (surprisingly to many) is the widely venerated Abraham Lincoln, who several times transgressed upon the civil liberties of the people without Congressional approval. His perhaps most well-known constitutional fault is his 1861 suspension of the writ of habeus corpus.

Which presidents are plucked from their previous obscurity when examined in a constitutional light? Again, two come to mind. Calvin Coolidge, who held the office from 1923-1929, is termed by biographer Amity Schlaes as the “great refrainer.” While many attack Coolidge for his inactivity, Schlaes writes in her biography of the thirtieth president that his “inaction reflects strength. In politics as in business, it is often harder, after all, not to do, to delegate, than to do” (9). Put simply, Coolidge handled his office with uncommon reservation and respect. As Coolidge himself is known for saying, “It is much more important to kill bad bills than to pass good ones.”

The other is Grover Cleveland, the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.  Cleveland adhered to a limited-government philosophy that seems old-fashioned or even naïve by today’s standards. This was perhaps best demonstrated by his veto of an 1887 bill for the fiscal relief of Texas farmers ravaged by drought. In his veto, he wrote that “I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit.”

Some may condemn the restrictions of the Constitution as backward, old-fashioned, or simply undesirable. I would suggest that problematic expansion in government has come not from its privileges, but from its abuses. Ours is the most durable Constitution in existence, and as long as it remains the supreme law of the land, I do not think it is unreasonable to judge our presidents, both past and present, at least in part by its requirements.