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Choosing A Responsible President

President Barack Obama uses a light saber as he watches a demonstration of fencing at an event supporting Chicago’s 2016 host city Olympic bid, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington. At rear is Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and first lady Michelle Obama. Photo by Brooks Kraft/Corbis

One of the lessons of tomorrow’s election is not to try to select a president who has enjoyed a mistake-free life.

Note: This is part of a series of essays examining the prospects for electing a republican president in 2016 and ultimately reining in the modern imperial presidency through the lens of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist essays on the executive branch.

Despite the frantic, even comical, protestations of Democratic congressional candidates, President Obama is right: his “policies” are on the ballot tomorrow.

There is no question that many people will be voting (or have already voted) as if the election were a referendum on the Obama presidency. But unfortunately this means less than it suggests. Ask yourself: How many of President Obama’s policies will change if Republicans win big? How many of his plans will be stymied?

We know he will make wholesale changes to the immigration system whatever the outcome. There are already reports of a deal with Iran designed to bypass the Senate’s treaty-making responsibilities. The trajectory of the war in Syria and Iraq seems to be completely independent of anything the Congress has said or will say–and it is hard to believe there is much that it will do. We can expect further executive action on climate change, Obamacare, and drug policy.

Of course, had President Obama maintained the strong Democratic House and Senate majorities of his first two years throughout his presidency or Mitt Romney won in 2012, things would certainly be different, but the apparent resilience of the president’s agenda in the face of what might be record midterm election losses should give us pause.

Why is this possible? Because in important ways, our system of government accountability has broken down.

The second volume of The Federalist (essays 37-85) is devoted to demonstrating the republicanism of the government framed by the Constitution. Since under our system, the people have no direct control over public policy (a great improvement over the distempered republics of the ancient world, Madison argues in essay 63), it is critical for its popular character (both real and perceived) that those who do shape policy are accountable for their stewardship of the people’s constitutional trust. Madison was confident that this was the case under the Constitution, but acknowledged in Federalist 39 that “[i]f the plan of the convention. . . be found to depart from the republican character, its advocates must abandon it as no longer defensible.”

Madison’s confidence sprang from his recognition that true responsibility within republican government required three things that were all accounted for in the Constitution:

  • That officeholders have enough power to fulfill their duties (Federalist 23). Withhold the necessary means to accomplishing important ends and you give officeholders a perfectly rational excuse for not getting the job done: no bricks without straw.
  • That there be clear lines of responsibility for essential functions (Federalist 70). No officeholder can be blamed for failure if every failure is a collective one: the buck stops somewhere.
  • That there be a system of internal and external mechanisms for removing unfaithful officeholders (Federalist 51, 65, etc.). Nothing produces publicly-spirited action like the threat of losing office without it: vote ‘em out or throw ‘em out. 

The modern, progressive presidency has significantly undermined every part of this system of political accountability.

One would think that the first item (sufficient power) would not be a problem for our steroid riddled federal government. But consider that elected officeholders, following Progressive prescriptions, have both actively and passively transferred critical powers to non-elected officeholders, including control over the money supply (to the Federal Reserve), divisive social issues (to the federal courts), and the vast network of economic regulations that make or break businesses (to the executive bureaucracy). None of these powerful institutions is entirely immune to political pressure or entirely free from political accountability. However, there is a growing disproportion, in many areas of governance, between authority and responsibility and, therefore, a growing plausibility to claims by elected officials that, while they’d love to make good things happen, their hands in matters x, y, and z are, unfortunately, tied.

More troubling still is the way that cultural and institutional developments have put the “buck” on a merry-go-round that never stops spinning. We wrote last week about the executive energy necessary for a responsible administration of the laws. In Alexander Hamilton’s account, the first element of energy is unity; that is, concentrating executive power in a single officeholder, the president.

As Hamilton describes in Federalist 70, this has obvious advantages in promoting quick decision-making and secrecy. But he also notes how placing a single person at the head of the executive branch improves responsibility by making buck-passing more difficult than would be the case in a system with multiple presidents (like in the Roman republic’s dual consulship) or a president forced to cooperate with an executive council (like governors in several states). Early Progressives like Woodrow Wilson embraced this concern, arguing for even more accountability in executive leadership through a Parliamentary-style governing system (along with the positive press he envisioned he would receive for his front-and-center messianic effort).

All well and good on paper, but the practice of later Progressives (including President Obama), perhaps having found Wilson’s expected adulation elusive, has been to use the cabinet and other heads of executive agencies as the sort of scapegoat Hamilton feared an executive council might become. “I was overruled by my council.”–the excuse Hamilton imagines–is not substantially different from President Obama’s deft shift from “I” when listing accomplishments and making promises to “they” when explaining troubles and apologizing for mistakes. Of course there’s usually some words about taking full responsibility for the mistakes made by others–and no one is more mad or will work harder to hold others accountable in the future. One suspects, however, that (usually) barely suppressed are the words that slipped out in Hillary Clinton’s testimony on Benghazi: “What difference at this point does it make?”

Presidents use constantly-generated polling and focus group data in an attempt to foreknow which policies and events to claim and which to disown before the die is cast.

Accountability is undermined in more subtle ways by the hyper-politicization of governance. Presidents use constantly-generated polling and focus group data in an attempt to foreknow which policies and events to claim and which to disown before the die is cast.

And if all else fails, blame factious politics for undesirable results. Following the rules of what William Galston and others have labeled the permanent campaign, you can discount all dissent as simply “politics as usual”–any public backlash against your policies is the product of misinformation spread by your critics. Even if you can’t create sizeable majorities to enact your policies, you can often put them in place through other means, all the while suggesting that the country has no other choice than for you to move forward with your original plans. Progress demands Progressivism.

Taken together, the employment of all these political devices makes the third republican safeguard, removing an unfaithful officeholder, less effective. Why? Because the would-be officeholder who might hold his unfaithful peer accountable sees less risk in aping than confronting the irresponsibility of others. Meanwhile, the public throws its hands up in disgust, reasonably casting blame in every direction and then, less helpfully, withdrawing by stages from the public arena.

The lesson in all this as we look past tomorrow’s election toward 2016 is not to try to select a presidential candidate who has enjoyed a mistake-free life. As imperfect people who have had to make many high-profile decisions, every candidate will be tested by some mistake in the past. How they have responded to those mistakes will tell us a good deal about whether they possess the requisite personal integrity to be a responsible President. The degree of their dissent from our Progressive orthodoxy will tell us a good deal about whether they will be in a position to offer a more republican accounting of the American presidency.

David Corbin is a Professor of Politics and Matthew Parks an Assistant Professor of Politics at The King’s College, New York City. They are co-authors of “Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation” (2011). You can follow their work on Twitter or Facebook.

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