The Biden Presidency: High Hopes
I have high hopes about the Biden presidency because it could prove to be revelatory. That is, as Biden’s presidency flounders about, as it will no doubt do absent another 9/11 or 1/6, it might become obvious that the most important problem isn’t this or that presidency but the presidency itself.
That is, it should become obvious that it is the presidency, the office itself, that has led to US imperialism, to the desire, shared by both conservatives and liberals, to regain or remake American greatness by imposing America’s will on the world. The presidency is an office that rewards will rather than deliberation, and it was intended as such. We expect our presidents to be “strong,” to act, much more than we expect them to be deliberative. Deliberation and execution don’t go together very well, while strength and action seem almost to define an executive power like the presidency. So, it is the presidency that allows politicians to take for granted that the US should seek to impose its will on the world, to seek and achieve greatness. And it has been this pursuit of greatness that has undermined the American republic, replacing It with an imperialistically inclined national security state.
This aspect of the presidency, this danger, was known and commented on when the Constitution was being debated in 1787-1788. Patrick Henry claimed in the Virginia ratifying convention that the proposed constitution “had an awful squinting;” that is, it squinted in the direction of monarchy. And that meant it squinted in the direction of creating “a great and mighty empire” where there must be “an army, and a navy, and a number of things….” [Storing, 31] The proposed constitution looked to make the United States “respectable as a nation abroad, and rich as individuals at home” in order to achieve “the grandeur and importance of America until time shall be no more.” [30-31] As a result, the United States would “imitate…those nations who have gone from a simple to a splendid government….Some way or other we must be a great and mighty empire….”
The presidency would sit at the center of this great and mighty empire, both as its chief executive and as its commander in chief. Presidents could clothe themselves in military attire and ride at the head of the army, while nursing “dangerous dreams of national glory.” And what better way to gain national glory than by waging war, especially waging war endlessly. An Anti-Federalist argued that the happiness of the people depended more on the proper conduct of local affairs than on “all that glory and respect which nations achieve by the most brilliant military achievements.” Such achievements would shower the president with glory but would do little to secure the happiness of the people. As Patrick Henry said: “When the American spirit was in its youth, the language of America was different: Liberty, Sir, was then the primary object.” Americans should not “inquire…how you are to become a great and powerful empire, but how your liberties can be secured.”
That the presidency was seen as potentially dangerous impacted how the presidency was constructed after the Constitution had been ratified and implemented. Washington saw the dangers, as is evident from his Farewell Address and his attempt, successful for a long time, to establish term limits for the presidency. He also refused to veto legislation unless he thought it was unconstitutional, deferring to the legislature in the making of laws. And as Hamilton argued in his Pacificus papers, the president was responsible for keeping the nation out of wars until they had been declared by the Congress. It was the president’s job to preserve the peace, while only the legislature could create a state of war. Jefferson ratified presidential term limits, as did every president until FDR ran and won a third term. And Jefferson helped create the process of congressional caucuses nominating presidential candidates, thereby modifying presidential independence. Some have argued that the creation of national nominating conventions was motivated by a desire to channel presidential ambitions in ways that would tie presidents to party platforms while advancing mediocre rather than meteoric candidates. Great men were not wanted in the presidency insofar as such men sought the glory that comes from undertaking great political projects like freeing slaves or enslaving freeman, as Lincoln put it in speech on “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”
So, perhaps it is time and a good opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the dangers of presidential power insofar as Biden has promised to seek normalcy after the disruptive Trump presidency. In the Trump presidency, as Biden seems to sense, one could see the dangers of presidential power as it has come to be on display. But those dangers weren’t due simply to Trump. They were and are also due to the presidency itself as an office that seems to beg for willful occupants, those who want to act without the deliberation needed to act wisely.