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The office of President of the United States is the most powerful political office in the world today. Ironically, it is an office that the Founders first wanted to avoid having altogether. They were so tired of kings, monarchs, dictators, and other one-man rulers that their first attempt in forming a new government excluded an executive totally! They did not want to even take the chance that another would arise and take unto himself kingly powers. Hence, the Articles of Confederation had no executive power. It was merely a loose committee of states running the government.
It was not long afterward, however, that the want of an executive power made itself manifest. In fact, the lack of an executive power in the government was one of the reasons we almost lost the Revolutionary War. Even after Yorktown, economic and political conditions had deteriorated to the point where monarchal government began to be spoken of as an alternative. George Washington wrote at this point:
“What astonishing changes a few years are capable of producing. I am told that even respectable characters speak of a monarchical form of government without horror. From thinking proceeds speaking, thence to acting is often but a single step. But how irrevocable and tremendous! What a triumph for our enemies to verify their predictions! What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious!” (The Making of America, p.107)
By the time the Constitutional Convention came, the question was not longer whether we should have a president, but how many we should have and what power should we give him. Some suggested a multiple presidency would provide the security against a runaway executive. It was pointed out however that a multiple executive would not allow enough energy to the office and it would also let the occupants of that office escape responsibility for their actions (It would always be the other guy’s fault!) James Wilson summed up best the final thinking of the Founders on this question:
“The next good quality that I remark is, that the executive authority is one. By this means we obtain very important advantages. We may discover from history, from reason, and from experience, the security which this furnishes. The executive power is better to be trusted when it has no screen. Sir, we have a responsibility in the person of our President; he cannot act improperly, and hide either his negligence or inattention; he cannot roll upon any other person the weight of his criminality; no appointment can take place without his nomination; and he is responsible for every nomination he makes. We secure vigor. We well know what numerous executives are. We know there is neither vigor, decision, nor responsibility, in them, add to all this, that officer is placed high, and is possessed of power far from being contemptible, yet not a single privilege is annexed to his character; far from being above the laws, he is amenable to them in his private character as a citizen, and in his public character by impeachment.” (MOA, pp. 511-512)
It was finally decided that if the power of the president could be carefully limited and checked, then the United States should have one strong president. And so it is in Article II of the Constitution.
James Madison pointed out that the Constitution was structured so that “the powers delegated … to the federal government are few.” He also pointed out that “the number of individuals employed under the Constitution of the United States will be much smaller than the number employed under the particular States.”
In Washington’s day there were 350 civilian employees serving a population of 3 million. Today there are around 270 million or ninety times more people, so if Washington were President today he would have to have at least 31,500 civilian employees to provide the level of service he maintained in the 1790s.
Since we have around 3 million government employees, that makes the ratio of government workers one hundred times greater in our day than in Washington’s era.
The Founders contemplated heavy responsibilities for the President, but limited him to six areas. Here are those six areas of presidential responsibility as they apply to our own day. The President is:
Notice this does not give the president any particular power other than to speak for us and to be recognized as our leader. As chief of state he does not have any power to make law.
Certainly there is power in this authority. But the Constitution carefully limits this power. The power to build up a military, to fund the military, to call state militia units to active duty, to make rules governing the military, and to decide when the United States will go to war (except to repel sudden invasions) is given specifically to the representatives of the people in Congress and not to the president.
All of the executive power of government rests with one person. He employs people in the executive branch to help and assist him in his Constitutional duties. Any executive order which he gives is to be confined to this branch. He cannot make law for anyone outside the executive branch.
He speaks to other nations for us. He is our chief ambassador. He is our chief negotiator. However, any agreement which he feels is necessary to be made with a foreign power is to be ratified by the Senate.
Since no other public official’s duty encompasses the welfare of the whole nation, the president has the charge to suggest legislation to Congress. An interesting example of a president who tried to confine his actions to those powers given to him by the Constitution was Thomas Jefferson. On one occasion he wrote: “The path we have to pursue is so quiet that we have nothing scarcely to propose [to Congress]. A noiseless course, not meddling with the affairs of others, unattractive of notice, is a mark that society is going on in happiness.” (MOA, p. 250)
This is a most special power given to one person for the nation as a whole. This is the power to let compassion and mercy set aside the demands of justice.
The Founders would be amazed to learn that under the influence of a modern centralist philosophy, the President has been burdened with a host of other responsibilities never dreamed of by the Founders. Here are some of the things Congress has assigned to the President without the Constitutional authority to do so:
It is rather astonishing that none of the above additions to the President’s powers and responsibilities have been authorized by a constitutional amendment.
Furthermore, they are all outside the original intent of the Founders as set forth by Madison when he said:
“The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined…. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.”
The concentrating of all this power in the executive department was done presumably with the best of intentions and with glowing promises. However, experience is demonstrating that this theory of “problem solving at the center” has turned out to be as counter-productive as the Founders warned it would be. Not only has it failed to fulfill its promises in the United States, but similar experiments have failed all over the world. It is what the Founders would call a “failure formula.”
There is a gradual consensus developing on all fronts that this approach has four major drawbacks.
Certainly, anyone who serves as President of the United States needs our encouragement to fulfill his Constitutional role. As he sits atop an unbelievable, bureaucratic, almost uncontrollable government, the president most assuredly needs our prayers on his behalf.