All Commentary
Friday, March 18, 2011

No One Can Run the Country

Pundits should stop asking the president to.

I don’t mean to pick on David Brooks, the resident conservative op-ed scribe at the New York Times, and I have no reason to defend President Obama on any count, but I can’t keep silent when I read Brooks assailing Obama for being too “prudent.”

Prudence can sometimes look like weakness…. Prudence is important, but Americans do have an expectation that their president will be the one out front, dominating the agenda, projecting strength and offering vision….

During the 2008 presidential campaign, and during the first two years of his term, I would have said that his troubling flaw was hubris–his attempts to do everything at once. But he seems to have an amazing capacity to self-observe and adjust. Now I’d say his worrying flaw is passivity.

By “prudent” and “passive,” Brooks evidently means “deliberative.” While I can’t say I like much of anything Obama has done, I suppose I’ll take deliberation before a bad decision made in a panicky rush to “do something.” When the alternative is to make things worse, let’s hear it for passivity.

I don’t know if Americans really expect “their president” to do all the things Brooks wants. Let’s hope not. But if they do, it’s because teachers and pundits have drummed into them that that’s what great presidents do. When historians are asked to rank the presidents, they unfailingly place at the top the ones who did Big Things, like drag the country into war. A president who stayed out of war (and didn’t just promise to) or who hacked away big parts of the corporate-welfare-warfare state would probably not rank terribly high. He or she would be dismissed as a do-nothing cipher.

What Should Americans Expect?

Be that as it may, I’m more interested in whether Americans should expect any president to “be the one out front, dominating the agenda, projecting strength and offering vision.” I say no. In fact, I’ll say that the freedom of the society has something to do with how strongly people want a “leader” for their country rather than a mere head of government–which is dangerous enough.

This is not personal to Obama. I don’t know how long presidents have been expected to embody the national spirit, but it’s been true throughout my lifetime. Do we really need someone to shape “our national life” or to give voice to our feelings about a devastating earthquake or a heinous crime? Are we incapable doing this ourselves, either individually or through the voluntary organizations of civil society?

One indication that people do see the president as a parental figure (or someone who has failed to fill that role) is that few object when it is said that the president “runs the country.” People who actually understood freedom would, on hearing that, respond, “Like hell he does!” Countries–societies, that is–are not run by anyone. Thank goodness the ruling elite is unable to monitor, much less control, significant aspects of everyday life.

Another ominous indication is that too few of us wince when the president is called “our commander-in-chief.” No he is not. If we must get constitutional about it, the president is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. That ain’t us. (And by the way, being commander-in-chief of the armed forces does not mean he gets to autocratically control the military and go to war or set up no-fly zones on his own say-so. It’s funny how people who claim devotion to the Constitution fail to notice that Congress was given a lot to say about war and the military.)

Don’t get me wrong: I would like nothing more than to see Obama, or whoever may occupy the White House, aggressively push an agenda of government retrenchment along all fronts. That would take a kind of leadership, just not the kind the pundits seek. Thanks to the perverse incentives of modern democracy, the politicians have put us in a fiscal hole so deep that it takes a Herculean effort not to despair. No one in power has a political interest in proposing the drastic reductions in power necessary simply to avoid the looming crisis–let alone to actually leave us free. We all remember the summer of 2009, when tea-party protesters demanded that government keep its hands off … Medicare! Who gains politically by calling for scrapping the corporate-welfare-warfare state?

Sweaty Beast of Power

Being out front of a movement to really shrink government is not what Brooks and his ilk–left and right–have in mind. They would no doubt see a presidential initiative to reduce the power of the presidency and of Congress as a contradiction. Boosters of a muscular executive–what used to be called the Imperial Presidency–really do want the person holding that office to be not merely the chief executive but rather the head of the country, as parents are heads of their families. I’ll never forget when, during the (government-inflicted) energy crisis of the 1970s, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen implored President Jimmy Carter to (this is close to verbatim) throw his arms around the sweaty beast of power. Cohen ended his column with these words: “We are waiting for our orders, Mr. President.” That attitude is far too common in the intelligentsia of all mainstream political persuasions. (That might lead us to conclude that in the mainstream there’s really only one political persuasion.)

This view of the presidency is a weak form of a principle I hesitate to even mention because I don’t wish to be misunderstood. It’s the German Führerprinzip, or leader principle in English. (It did not originate with the Nazis, and I am making no comparisons to you-know-who.) Society was seen as a hierarchical organization with a supreme, not-to-be-questioned leader at the apex. In modern democratic societies the principle is watered down substantially but, as we’ve seen, not beyond recognition. In the eyes of “responsible” pundits, presidents are supposed to articulate our concerns, express our feelings, formulate our vision, shape the national agenda, and “if necessary,” take us to war even when Congress is too parochial to see the Big Picture.

When we hear pundits pleading with Obama to exert leadership, we are hearing an invocation of the democratic version of the Führerprinzip. Do they know what they are saying?

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.