The American president has a symbolic role as the head of our republic. But presidents are not kings. Nor are they perfect. Recent history makes this abundantly clear. On President’s Day let’s reflect on the value of the presidency.
The Constitution states that the president is the nation’s chief executive officer and military commander-in-chief. A few other powers are outlined. But Article 2 of the Constitution is only about 1,000 words long.
The president could execute his constitutional duties quietly, as a professional bureaucrat. But the presidency has accumulated a bunch of symbolic power that is not really there in the Constitution. These days, celebrities become presidents – and presidents become celebrities.
And the president and his family function as something like an American royal family. This has nothing to do with the Constitution. The Constitution does not designate the role of “First Lady,” for example. We elect a president, not his wife.
There is also something odd about how the White House functions as a kind of royal palace, where the president governs. The blandly named presidential residence is not identified in the Constitution. But we take it for granted that the first lady hosts Easter Egg hunts there, while the president receives state visitors.
It is strange that the American president lives, works and even plays in the same place. The distinction between public and private is a useful one. We do private things at home, while the office is reserved for professional activities. Confusion about this might explain why Bill Clinton dropped his pants in the Oval Office.
The Clinton episode exposes a significant problem: We are too familiar with the private lives of our presidents. It is true that familiarity breeds contempt. A president’s penchant for golf and cheeseburgers has nothing to do with how he executes his official duties.
Our current president has, of course, encouraged this kind of familiarity. Prior to his election, he bragged about his sex life. His rhetorical strategy personalizes public disputes. And he vents his spleen on Twitter, goading adversaries and mocking the size of their nuclear buttons.
Of further concern is the problem of nepotism. Recent presidential history reads like “Game of Thrones.” George W. Bush was a feckless prince restored to the throne. Hilary Clinton was a former queen attempting to return to power. The Trump family is a new clan on the rise. The Democrats even dredged up a remnant from Camelot, as Joe Kennedy III offered a reply to Trump’s State of the Union.
These dynastic struggles are corrosive of democratic values. They make it seem that winter is coming.
Another problem arises in our president’s desire for a military parade. Such a parade serves no public purpose. The president apparently enjoyed a military parade he saw in France. He wants one of his own.
But when private whim governs, we no longer have a republic. A government of personal caprice is antithetical to the common good.
The problem of containing capricious power is not new. It is as old as Greek tragedy. The Greeks imagined a solution in the person of a wise and virtuous statesman.
Our system focuses less on virtue and more on limiting power. It rejects the idea that a tyrant could say “L’etat c’est moi” (French for “I myself am the nation”). Capricious power is restricted by the checks and balances of the Constitution. The president is not a king. He is the chief bureaucrat.
It would be nice if the president were virtuous. But the Constitution’s checks and balances are not built for a world of angels. They are designed to prevent vicious men from acting contrary to the common good. To this end, Article 2 outlines term limits and a process of impeachment.
These checks and balances only work if people demand them to. In 1790 in his first address to Congress, George Washington declared that knowledge and education are essential for “the security of a free constitution.” Citizens must vigilantly guard our rights and our system of governance.
The American presidency has developed since Washington’s day. But the Constitution remains our guide. The Congress and the courts are co-equal branches of government. We elect a president, not a king. And the White House is the people’s house.
Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala