A President, not a Savior (non-partisan)

Cato’s Gene Healy had an excellent article in the Christian Science Monitor last week.  Some excerpts (emphasis added):

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. …

[The] 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.”

The men who designed our Constitution never thought of the president as America’s “national leader.” Indeed, for them, the very notion of “national leadership” raised the possibility of authoritarian rule by a demagogue who would create an atmosphere of crisis in order to enhance his power. …

If our presidential candidates seem to embrace an exalted notion of their status, perhaps that’s a function of the adulation they’re greeted with by the crowds at campaign appearances. A recent feature in The New York Times described the prevailing atmosphere: “Look at the faces — not of the candidates, but of the rope-liners themselves, with arms and fingers extended, their eyes bugged and sometimes tearful.” “I got to smell him, and it was awesome,” exclaimed Kate Homrich, who managed to get close to Obama at one campaign rally. Another, Bonnie Owens, got a finger-pinch from the Illinois senator: “Best experience of my life,” she declared.

And it’s not just voters at campaign rallies who fall prey to presidential idolatry. If anything, American political elites — pundits, talking heads, and presidential scholars — are worse. When President Bush traveled to Blacksburg, Va. to offer comfort after the April 2007 shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, David Gergen, adviser to one Democratic and three Republican presidents, commented, “At times like this, [the president] takes off his cap as commander in chief and puts on the robes of consoler in chief.” Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton, went even further: “In many ways, [the president] is our national chaplain.”


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