JONATHAN CHAIT AUGUST 22, 2011
Gene Healy has written about what he calls "The Cult of the Presidency," and I've written about his concept as well. It is a pervasive mentality that views the president as a kind of national father, responsible for everything that goes well or ill. The fallacies of the mentality are that it fails, first, to distinguish problems that are amenable to political solution from those that are not, and second, that it fails to recognize even within the political realm that the presidency is but one co-equal branch of government.
If you looking for an anthropologically perfect sample of the cult of the presidency, check out the feature of the Sunday New York Times, entitled "If I Were President." The feature asks a series of leading lights to outline their vision for the country. But the entire concept makes no distinction between the notion of "if I were president" and "if I were king." If you were the president, of course, you would need a course of action that could be accomplished either through an executive order or that could be passed through both the House and Senate. The proposals generally make no allowance whatsoever for Congress:
I would invest in an infrastructure for civic renewal — not just roads and bridges, but schools, transit, playgrounds, parks, community centers, health clinics, libraries and national service. This would put people to work. And it would draw us out of our skyboxes and into the common spaces of democratic citizenship. ...
I’d grant the very rich the boon of helping them help others, as a form of gratitude for their good fortune. I’d also connect every creative writing program with a hospital, a school, a library, a prison, a neighborhood center ...
I would focus entirely on achieving what I think most Americans want: a stable and productive economy; an environmentally viable planet; a humane, efficient government capable of educating its young and protecting its vulnerable members. Americans are less selfish than some of our politicians believe (projection may be a factor here!) and will respond with reason and resilience to passionate clarity. ...
I would invest half of our defense budget in children, young people and in energy conservation.
I would expand the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps and grow both for the next 10 years. A benefit would be two years of free college for two years of service. I’d ask corporations to fund two years of college or a trade school for young women and men from homes stricken with poverty.
I would fund energy-saving improvements — insulation of houses, solar panels and replacement of inefficient furnaces for households making less than $30,000 a year and develop a sliding scale for those earning more than $30,000 a year. I would help small businesses retrofit their buildings.
I would require members of Congress to participate in a weeklong workshop on dialogue, negotiation and compromise before the next session. All sessions would begin with 10 minutes of silence.
Note that the last item I quoted not only imagines that the president can bypass Congress, as most of the others do, but also that she could require Congress to attend dialogue workshops.
I'm sure the editors who created the feature and the contributors to it are aware of the separation of powers -- they simply do not assimilate it int their conception of the presidency. Nor do any of them express even a tacit desire to alter our structure of government to replace it with parliamentary government, in which the majority party automatically assumes the capacity to impose its governing program. (I would favor that.) They instead seem to long for a monarch, and the longing is just as strong on the left as the right.