Presidential greatness reconsidered

While it is of course far too early to even consider the question of whether or not Barack Obama will turn out to be a great president, a mediocre one, or perhaps even a failed one, the very fact that the public and the pundits have saddled him -as they have every recent president- with the responsibility of solving all great and small ills of the nation does not bode well for a vision of limited and constitutional government.

In the sense that mainstream historians -who generally are of a left- liberal persuasion- favor activist, visionary presidents who sought power to make far-reaching changes, he certainly appears to be on the right track to join the exalted ranks of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt and Wilson and, yes, George W. Bush, who bent or ignored constitutional limitations and vastly expanded presidential power.

Scholars such as Robert Higgs, Gene Healy, John V. Denson and Ivan Eland have written about how rankings of presidential greatness are all but turned on their heads once constitutional considerations are factored in, that is, when it is taken into account how faithfully each chief executive fulfilled his oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution.

Higgs, for one, asserts, that by this standard, no president since 1932 and arguably since 1896 has been true to his oath of office.  About Calvin Coolidge, he writes: “Of the presidents since Cleveland, I rank Coolidge the highest. He sponsored sharp tax cuts and greatly reduced the national debt. As Mencken wrote, “There were no thrills while he reigned, but neither were there any headaches. He had no ideas, and he was no nuisance” – high praise in view of the many execrable men who have served as president during the twentieth century.”

The fact that “he had no ideas” sounds almost derogatory to our modern ears, whether or not it was meant that way by the author, is telling: the populace expects, nay demands sweeping vision and grandiose, transformatory dreams from the president. The very idea that someone might simply “do the day’s work”, in Coolidge’s words, is nearly alien to us now.

In truth, Coolidge was close to the founders’ ideal of a president, for the people who ratified the original Constitution never intended the presidency to be a vastly powerful office occupied by “great men”. A meager four paragraphs comprise Article II, sections 2 – 4 which enumerate the powers of the president. Indeed, the presidency was conceived as a largely ceremonial position whose occupant would limit himself to enforcing federal laws. Gradually, over time, massively during Lincoln’s and FDR’s presidencies and then progressively during the 20th century, presidents seized more and more power. This trend is not likely to be overturned as long as “elites and masses alike look to the president to perform supernatural feats and therefore tolerate a virtually unlimited exercise of presidential power” (Robert Higgs).

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