Three things we can expect no matter who is elected to the White House this year.
Elections are funny things. We put great stock in what candidates say they will do, and yet time, events, and character traits often mean that candidates, once in office, are quite different than advertised. And it is not just that candidates pursue different policies than planned. We put expectations on them, and are dreadfully disappointed when they fail to measure up.
Of course, this misplaced hope in presidential leadership is not just a modern problem. American history is replete with examples of executives reversing course once they enter the White House and failing to live up to the hope of their campaigns. Consider Thomas Jefferson. After heavily criticizing George Washington and John Adams for abusing executive power, Jefferson expanded it beyond all reckoning. The first undeclared Executive war was in Libya, but it was not Obama’s 2011 “military kinetic action.” It was Jefferson’s war with the Barbary pirates (more on that at the end), a war that turned all his pre-presidency criticisms on their head.
This illustrates the curious fact that elections are often about one thing, while Administrations are about something else. And that the hope placed in presidential candidates to “fix the country” is often misplaced. Sometimes, this is because candidates lie about their intentions once in office. At other times, events change their perspectives on what is most important. And far too often, we simply place too much hope in Presidents (see a bit of the history at the end of this article). Bush wanted to be a domestic president. He wanted to focus on education and tax cuts. 9/11 made him into something else, a War President who focused almost exclusively on foreign affairs for the last six years of his presidency. President Obama also wanted to be a domestic president. He wanted to focus on “transforming America” into a better version of itself, as he saw it. But foreign affairs have constantly interrupted him. And given his policy commitments, there has been no way for him to deal with foreign policy threats without renegotiating his earlier promises on his constitutional authority as President.
Given that, it is a bit of a fool’s errand to predict how the current presidential candidates might act as President, but there are a few general rules worth keeping in mind.
1. By constitutional design, historical practice, and general structure, the Presidency is the dominant branch in foreign affairs.
This means that presidential power tends to wax in the midst of a foreign policy crisis. It also means, somewhat paradoxically, that foreign crises can make it much harder for a president to fulfill his domestic agenda. Why? Partly because they divert too much attention. And partly because Congress, having been kept at arms-length in decisions on foreign policy, is often more aggressive about having input into the President’s domestic plans.
2. The current Administration, even more than the previous one, has altered the terms of debate by acting aggressively in domestic affairs.
This can be seen in a variety of President Obama’s actions and statements, like his statement in January, 2014: “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone…and I can use that pen to sign executive orders…” On the one hand, this is relatively uncontroversial; Presidents can sign executive orders to guide the Executive Branch. On the other hand, Obama has consistently made statements like this in the context of excoriating the legislative branch for not being on board with his agenda. The message is clear: if you will not act in accordance with my will, I will act without you.
President Franklin Roosevelt was perhaps the first president to claim something like this when, in his first inaugural address, he made it clear that if Congress did not act in accordance with his policy desires he would act without them using “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency” of the Great Depression. But Obama has expanded FDR’s policy substantially. And once the genie is out of the bottle, it is difficult to change course. One can have no doubt that either of the parties’ frontrunners would act in a similar matter. Trump is transparent about his desire to act as a strong man, and Hillary is fond of saying, if “Congress won’t act; we have to do something.”
3. Regardless of who wins the White House, we are seeing the effects of the rise of the popular and populist savior-politician.
Everyone, it seems, except for the 35% of the Republican primary voters who keep voting for him, is decrying the rise of Trump. But how different, really, is Trump’s bombastic personality cult from the one Obama created around himself in 2008? After all, while Trump promises to “Make America Great Again,” it was Obama who promised that his election would be “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”
The demagogue, the great man of “ambition and talents” has always been a danger in a Republic, as Lincoln warned in his Lyceum Address. The man of ambition, Lincoln said, would not be content to follow in the footsteps of Washington and Jefferson. He would want to remake America into something new and different: to “transform America,” or perhaps, “to Make America Great Again.” In this light, Trump’s campaign should not be a surprise. The necessary conditions of discontent with Washington and a hope for some sort of political salvation have been present for a very long time. They merely waited for a man of sufficient hubris to step in. Importantly, this suggests that even if Trump fails to win the White House, there may well be more like him.
What is desperately needed in Washington is a return to a meaningful constitutional tradition – in both the White House and Congress.
A return to a tradition where Congress actually uses the power of the purse to limit the President, and where the President does not see Congress as a rubber stamp to his preferred policies, but as an equal partner, indeed, even a superior player in legislative policy.
We should remember that the American idea was an experiment. Not an unending experiment in the sense of a country constantly stretching for something new, for some new progress forward, but rather, an experiment in democracy. The Founders understood that it might not last forever. They were not all as pessimistic as John Adams, who feared democracy because it “never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” But they had their doubts that America could last, absent a populace motivated by virtue; virtue that was necessary for constitutional government.
The obvious question then is whether there is any hope for a president who will help restore such a constitutionally virtuous tradition. In this, as in so many other areas of American life, we should place our hope not in one special leader, or in Washington to transform our culture, but in a community of citizens embedded within it who are dedicated to the proposition that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Our constitution was designed by men of particular genius, capable of, for a time, withstanding even the most demagogic of leaders. But it cannot withstand them forever.
Which is why it is true to say that we have a crisis of leadership in Washington. But it is also true that the political problem in Washington is downstream from our cultural problem. And our often-poor choice of leaders is simply one symptom of a culture in crisis.
Institute alumnus Dr. Verbois is an assistant professor of political science at Grove City College and an affiliated scholar at the John Jay Institute. He teaches American Politics and Political Theory and specializes in American constitutional thought.
Backstory: Jefferson’s War with the Barbary Pirates
That war has largely been forgotten, outside of the Marine Hymn’s famous line “To the shores of Tripoli.” But it is worth remembering. The Barbary Pirates were a thorn in the side of the civilized world in the 17th and 18th centuries. Most European nations paid the pirates to leave them alone, and America followed suit. But Jefferson thought such petty bribery was beneath America, and so he stopped payments. In response, the pirates preyed on American merchant ships and enslaved their sailors. Rather than go to Congress and ask for a declaration of war, Jefferson sent a small flotilla with orders not to initiate a conflict, but to sail around the area and fight back if the opportunity arose. The flotilla was mishandled and the pirates managed to capture one of the navy ships. At that point, Jefferson decided to use a handful of marines and secret agents to undermine the regime by supporting the younger brother of the Pasha of Tripoli.
The operation was remarkably successful. Not for Hamet, the younger brother of the Pasha; he was abandoned by his American allies once they had achieved their aim of forcing the Pasha to the bargaining table. But it was a success for Jefferson, because he was able to negotiate a lasting arrangement with the Pasha. It was also a success because, once presented with a fait accompli, Congress readily praised Jefferson’s actions.
Backstory: Bush and Obama: Campaigns vs. Reality
Consider, in 2000, George W. Bush campaigned offering a message of hope, as a compassionate conservative, who was going to be a uniter, not a divider, and heal some of the problems caused in Washington by the always morally problematic Bill Clinton. That did not work out so well. On policy grounds, Bush campaigned against nation building, but changed radically after 9/11. Eight years later, Barack Obama also campaigned on a platform of hope – not just hope for change – but hope in him personally as the one person that could fix not just national, but global problems. As with Bush, that did not work out so well. On policy grounds, Obama campaigned on a promise of ending Bush’s “unilateralism” in foreign affairs. After reaching the White House, Obama reversed course substantially by dramatically expanding the “secret war” of intelligence, spying, and drones. In both cases, the public’s hope in a political savior was misplaced.