Some in the news media are aghast that many of President Donald Trump’s executive orders and legislative proposals sent off to the United States Congress represent an attempt to undo the presidential “legacy” of Barack Obama. The question is, why should it be presumed that presidents need to have policy legacies to leave behind after their term in office has ended?
In this particular case, many of those on the political “left” are focused on the proposals coming out of the Trump White House to repeal and replace ObamaCare – the (un)Affordable Care Act – as well as “climate change” legislation and international agreements, land use and mining regulations, and the Iran nuclear armaments deal.
Not All Presidential Legacies Are “Equal” in the Eyes of the Pundits
But making America great, as Trump perceives it, is for the United States government to direct a great deal of what goes on in America. An interesting question is whether the news pundits would be in the same public policy uproar if an immediately preceding president had been a classical liberal and had left a “legacy” of having dismantled the interventionist-welfare state, which his successor started to intentionally reverse.
Would there be the same hew and cry that that a classical liberal president’s “legacy” of a freer society for the American people was being undermined? That it was an attempt to erase the achievements of someone elected “by the people” to move the country in the direction of laissez-faire?
I doubt it, given the political sentiments of many in the media and in academia today. It would, most likely, be hailed as reversing a temporary “reactionary” lapse from the “progressive” policies that were keeping America on the “right side of history.”
This is not to say that what President Trump has proposed or is attempting to implement in any way represents a classical liberal agenda. It is quite the opposite, in my view. His planned “legacy” is to Make America Great Again. But making America great, as Trump perceives it, is for the United States government to direct a great deal of what goes on in America, just in different ways than those on the “progressive” left.
Fighting Over Whose Presidential Legacy Will Be Left Standing
Let’s remember what the definition of a “legacy” is. President Trump’s desired “legacy” would be Mercantilist-like trading policies under which the federal government actively influences the patterns and content of imports and exports between the United States and the rest of the world. It would be a legacy of fiscal activism in which the tax code and regulations are used to coerce American businesses about where and what private enterprises invest in and hire for. It would be a legacy of foreign political and military intervention based upon arbitrary presidential judgments concerning the best “art of the deal,” in the context that primarily thinks of international affairs in terms of a zero-sum game.
So all that is at stake in this presidential “legacy” controversy is whose legacy will prevail over the other: Barack Obama’s “progressive” political paternalism for a more “politically correct” America, or Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” political and economic nationalism and domestic and international interventionism?
Let’s remember what the definition of a “legacy” is. Various dictionaries all say that it is something that is passed down by someone who has died. It can be money, or real property, or some other inheritance left to a later generation, such as, “the Founding Fathers left behind the legacy of the institutional protection of people’s civil liberties in the form of the Bill of Rights.”
Obsessing Over Leaving a Presidential Legacy
Presidents seem to be obsessed with the “legacy” they leave behind. For example, in 1993 a number of newspapers reported that even though it was less than a year as President, Bill Clinton would sit at his desk in the Oval Office and discuss with his advisors what his legacy should be when his time as U.S. chief executive had come to an end.
It means doing something to the American people in the name of doing something for those same people. There is a seemingly inescapable arrogance on the part of those who run for the presidency of the United States. They dream of being the “most powerful man in the World,” the “leader of the ‘free world’,” the one with the finger on the “nuclear button”, and the benevolent political “father figure” who offers aid and comfort to the survivors of natural tragedies such as hurricanes or the victims of brutal terrorist attacks.
How can you be president if you have not left your mark, especially when you know that every schoolgirl and boy will know your name and learn about your accomplishments in their history books all across the country? You are going to be immortalized. You will be one of America’s political Olympian gods.
Do we not marvel at the ancient Pyramids built by the Egyptian pharaohs (with slave labor, of course)? Do we not remember Roman emperors who left amazing water aqueducts and masterful cobbled roads across Europe that were built thousands of years ago (as their means of maintaining political and military control of their empire)? Or what about Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose New Deal “saved capitalism” from its own self-destruction during the Great Depression and who then went on to “save the world” from Adolph Hitler in a global alliance with two other bigger-than-life political Olympians – Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin (the latter, of course, a mass murderer in his own right)?
Those are the type of “big shoes” to fill for any winner of the ultimate political prize in the United States. So presidents have to think “big” about their time in office. But what does thinking “big” really mean in our political day and age? It means doing something to the American people in the name of doing something for those same people. It means imposing political programs and projects on the citizens of the United States in the name of making America “socially just” or nationalistically “great again.”
Presidential Legacies Are Imposed on Everyone
Presidential legacy-building is part of America’s version of governmental central planning. It means using the power of the United States government to remold and rearrange the social, economic and cultural affairs of either large segments of the population or (more ambitiously) the entire country as a whole. Lyndon Johnson thought “big” when he was in the White House with his “Great Society” wars on “poverty,” on “illiteracy,” on “racism,” in addition to fighting an actual war to stop “communist dominos” from falling in Southeast Asia at the cost of 55,000 American lives and possibly one million Vietnamese. (See my article, “LBJ’s Great Society as Hubris of the Social Engineer”.)
Presidential legacies, therefore, mean government planning and control over the decisions and destinies of large numbers of people. Big presidential legacies mean fewer and smaller legacies pursued by the individual men and women in society. Presidential legacies require confining people within the dreams and plans of the politicians sitting in the White House and replacing the dreams and plans of the multitudes of individuals themselves as free people.
Presidential legacy-building is part of America’s version of governmental central planning. The larger a president’s legacy in the form of regulations, controls, redistributions, and prohibitions — regardless of their reason — the less room there is for our own individual plans and peaceful cooperative activities with others.
Presidents presume to know better, implicitly claim to be wiser, and presumptuously assert a greater concern with “righting social wrongs” than the individual members of society as we go about our associative interactions with others. There has been no president in my lifetime, and long before that, who did not represent the type of person that Adam Smith warned us about long ago in The Wealth of Nations (1776) when he said that such presidential-type ambitions “would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.”
So what should be the horizon of planned accomplishment for anyone who wins the position of President of the United States for four or eight years? I would say: To uphold and perform the duties and responsibilities specifically assigned to the presidency under a strict reading of the U.S. Constitution.
Presidents Should Only Do What the Constitution Requires
The president is not supposed to be the coercive domestic paternalist telling Americans how to live their lives. The President serves as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, but may not declare or make war without the consent of the Congress. With the advice and consent of the Senate, he may enter into treaties with other countries. He nominates various federal judgeship positions, including the Supreme Court, to the Senate for their affirmation. He is to deliver a periodic State of the Union report to the Congress and may suggest legislation to the Congress, but the members of Congress are not obligated to consider, vote on, or approve it. And except for a few amplifications and modest enumerated extensions of such duties, that essentially is all the President of the United States is supposed to do.
In a government that was limited to the actual enumerated duties and functions assigned by the Constitution, the President of the United States would have little to do with the types of “legacy” matters that nowadays dominate the minds of those in the White House.
He should not be wielding either a phone or a pen to take executive domestic policy-making powers into his own hands involving the life, liberty, and property of the American citizenry. He is not supposed to be sending off members of the armed forces to far away places to fight in undeclared wars, or training the military forces of other countries and intervening into the internal affairs of other nations; or ordering the use of unmanned drones to undertake military attacks in other parts of the world (and sometimes without the permission of the countries in question), arbitrarily deciding who lives and who dies and what is “acceptable” human collateral damage.
The president is not supposed to be the coercive domestic paternalist telling Americans how to live their lives, and he is not supposed to be the global policeman enforcing his own notions of international “good behavior” on the rest of mankind.
Calling For “Do-Nothing” Presidents
Government is not to decide what is to be left to future generations other than upholding the political institutions that preserve a free society. In other words, outside of his limited and enumerated Constitutional duties, the chief executive of the United States federal government should be a do-nothing president. No grand “vision” for America, no “lasting legacies” to make America “great” or “socially just,” and no “moral crusades” to try to make Americans more “virtuous” or make the rest of the world “more like us.”
By only doing his narrowly defined constitutional tasks and otherwise being as “do-nothing” as possible, the President of the United States would help to leave the road clear for each of the estimated 326 million individual Americans to plan, direct, and make their own futures, and leave behind whatever may end up being the intended or unintended “legacies” that result from their actions over their lifetimes.
That is the philosophical heritage, the “legacy,” of the original and traditional “American system.” Government is not to decide what is to be left to future generations other than upholding the political institutions that preserve a free society.
For all the rest, the individual men and women in the country decide separately what will give each of them meaning, value, and purpose in their own lives. They as individuals decide what they might want to leave behind to family and friends or to “society” as a whole as a remembrance of who they were and the form that their legacy may take on.
Out of the resulting tapestry of intended and unintended individual human legacies emerges the character of the societal cultures that mark off each part of the overlapping and interdependent global humanity that we all share.
It is potentially far richer and more productive for human improvement, in every imaginable way, than when one or a few ambitious human beings dream of creating their political power-based legacies as the straight-jackets into which everyone else is to be made to conform and within which they are to be confined.
It is time to turn away from the legacy-leaving “do-something” president and insist upon the constitutionally limited “do-nothing” occupant of that Washington, D.C. public housing project known as the White House.