Do We Expect Too Much From the President? A Reply To Bill Egnor

Bill Egnor blogs about whether or not we’ve been expecting too much from President Obama. He says:

“If you look at the Presidency from the point of view of the Constitution, it really is not a powerful office except in terms of what it prevents. It is really and primarily a check on the powers of other areas of our government and military. The president proposes no legislation, none. He can only do one of two things with a piece of legislation; he can sign it and make it law, or he can veto it. This is intended to be the final check to prevent the Congress from making a big mistake. They can override a veto, it is true, but when a veto happens it requires a reexamination of the bill by both Houses and a two thirds majority in each in order to overrule the President.”

I don’t think we’ve been expecting too much from the President, and I do think he’s been letting us down. Bill’s contrary view is based on the idea that the written constitution makes the Presidency a relatively weak office, and that, under it, it is not the President’s job to legislate or to take the lead in helping us to meet America’s social, economic other problems. But, I think this is a very anachronistic interpretation of the constitution which the United States has left far behind long years ago.

Strong presidents established early on that they had considerable influence over legislation. Names that come to mind here are Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and of course, Abraham Lincoln. But certainly by the early 20th century and Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency it had been established that the President has very powerful legislative functions because of two factors.

First, the President is the only official elected by all the people, not quite directly because of the electoral college it is true, but still pretty close to directly. And second, because the President is the leader of his political party, and party influence transcends the executive and legislative branches and gives the President, the actual, if not the formal power, to introduce legislation into the Congress. How that happens is that the Executive Branch often formulates bills, or at least the outlines of bills, and then has some friendly Congressperson or Senator introduce them into a House of Congress. This has been going on for a long time. It is the way things have been done in Washington, and it makes the President the most important legislative leader in the US Government, more important than the Speaker of the House, and more important than the Majority leader of the Senate, in actuality, if not in name.

None of this goes beyond the constitution or is prohibited by it. Instead, it is the way actual political practice has evolved under the constitution. It is, if you will, part of the unwritten constitution of the United States. For this to change, Presidents would have to refuse to try to lead the Congress in the direction they favor. But, how can Presidents do that, when as candidates they run for the Presidency, and ask for support, by promising many things to the public, promises they cannot begin to deliver upon except through vigorous leadership of the legislature exercised through addresses to the public, the Congress, press conferences, interviews, bills introduced into the legislature through friendly proxies, etc during which the President lays out what he wants Congress to do, i.e. what he wants them to legislate. If someone running for President expected to govern in a way that doesn’t involve leading the legislative branch, then all such promises would be made in bad faith.

I’ve pointed out that the legislative function of the President is not new, but goes back to the beginning of the Republic, and has been a dominant feature of the Presidency since the early 20th century at least. That means that this function has nothing to do with the Bush Administration and its over-stepping of executive authority. While I agree with Bill Egnor that the Bush Administration did that, and that many of its activities were unconstitutional and may well have involved violations of the law, its activity in this respect had nothing to do with the legislative functions of the Presidency. The over-stepping we’re talking about, instead, had to do with only violations of law and the constitution by the Bush Administration. These are violations that need desperately to be pursued with prosecutions by the Obama Administration, and, upon conviction, punished according to our laws.

For President Obama to be the strong progressive leader we thought we were electing, he doesn’t have to violate the constitution at all. All he has to do is to follow the pattern of modern presidents in leading the Congress. For him to refuse to do that, and to turn over major bills to Congress to write, is outrageous. It is to turn over the writing of those bills to lobbyists, and to maximize the chances that the products of Congress will act against the interests and the needs of the American people.

President Obama has disappointed us on so many fronts already, that I won’t take the time to list them here. But I will point out that acting differently to support a better stimulus bill, reconstruct our financial system, a better cap-and-trade bill, a better health care insurance reform bill, a better credit card reform act, quicker action on getting accountability for torture and violations of civil liberties, and on restoring and strengthening constitutional safeguards in these areas, required none of the arbitrary actions and violations of the constitution we saw during the Bush Administration. All that he needed to do was to act in the traditions of the best Democratic Presidents of the past. The truth is that he is refusing to do that, and instead is acting like a community facilitator who thinks his community is composed of inside the beltway congresspeople, media types, policy analysts, and lobbyists, rather than the American people.

One of Bill’s main points is:

"In the end if you want to make things work in this Republic, you have to work the system as it was intended. It is far to easy to do what the Republicans have done and short circuit the system, the problem is that way lies tyranny of one kind or another. The basic idea of our system of government and law is one of balance; we must not trade short term achievements, no matter how well intentioned, for long term imbalance. This is one of the myriad ways that democracies die, and it is one we must avoid."

I think this statement is mistaken in at least two respects.

1) We no longer live with the system the founders intended, or possibly could have forecast. Instead, we live with a system that has evolved so that the United States can live in a world that is vastly different culturally, technologically, socially, economically, and ethically. ‘The constitutional system" has, with the aid of the Supreme Court, and various home-grown traditions, evolved since the beginning to allow us to function in this new and much more complex world. The question is whether it has evolved enough; whether it can cope with the huge problems we see, and still maintain the freedoms that are so important to us. In any event, we don’t need or want to work the system as it was intended by the founders. Instead we need and want to be able to work the system that has evolved in order to solve those problems. We want, also, to preserve that system, but that does not mean we can, or ought to, preserve all of it. What we need to preserve is its essential character as a Democracy, committed to both majority rule and individual and minority freedoms and rights. But some parts of it, like the filibuster in the Senate, need to go before they destroy us all.

And 2) even though “balance” is essential, and short-term achievements should not supercede the fundamentals of our system and the need for long-term balance, the problem with this as a general statement is that we have to be really careful about distinguishing what is fundamental, from what is tradition that has outlived its usefulness. Our civil liberties are fundamental. The rule of law and its enforcement are fundamental. The separation of powers is fundamental. But some things that are not fundamental include private for-profit health insurance, bipartisanship, the filibuster, the seniority system in Congress, the electoral college, nine justices on the Supreme Court rather than 15, the right of the credit card companies to charge whatever interest rates they want, the rights of corporations to conduct their own political campaigns in their own economic interests, and many other things. So, the plea for balance cannot be so general. It has to be much more specific. It has to tell us what kinds of presidential activities would unbalance the system.

In particular, in noting that the Bush Administration unbalanced the relationship between the executive and legislative branches, one has to be specific about the ways in which that was done, and then one has to ask what Obama has done so far to right the balance. I think the answer is not much, as we see from his insistence on the "state secrets" doctrine, and his failure to pursue prosecutions for torture and illegal surveillance activities.

Coming back to the question of whether we are expecting too much from this President, I think we are expecting from him only that he will work hard, and with some success, to achieve the outcomes he promised. In many cases, we think he has abandoned those outcomes, for fear of antagonizing various corporate interests. In fact, we see him as so far representing their well-being and not ours; as being a Wall Street President like Hoover, and not a Main Street President like FDR, Truman, or even Lyndon Johnson.

We don’t like that. We also don’t like his attempts to marginalize us. To call those of us who insist on a good public option as “the left of the left,” and to say that those of us, like myself, who are Medicare for All people are just impractical idealists, or to say that those economists, some of the finest in the world, who earlier wanted a strong enough stimulus to bring us back from the recession are “impractical,” even though they were right, and he was obviously (long-term unemployment of 10% now being forecast) way off base. Put simply, we feel betrayed, and increasingly bitter and mistrustful of this Administration. It has a long way to go to regain our trust, if that’s even possible.

(Also posted at the Alllifeisproblemsolvingblog where there may be more comments)

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