by Jonathan Danzig | President Obama does not have unlimited power, nor should he.
If the Election Night celebration on the Hill meant anything, it stood for the fact that many Americans are placing a substantial amount of hope and faith in our new president, Barack Obama. Students gathered, sang “God Bless America,” chanted “Yes we can,” and took over Davis Square out of sheer rapture. Two months later, two million Americans dressed in Obama t-shirts, with Obama buttons, waving Obama flags took over the National Mall to celebrate the peaceful transfer of power from President Bush to President Obama. Understandably, many Americans expect great things from the new president, but they must remain aware: January 20th was an inauguration, not a coronation, and no man is perfect. Americans should stay wary of centralized power, no matter the person in charge, and should remember the limitations of the presidency.
Lest America forget, the president is not a king. Under Article Two of the Constitution, the powers of the chief executive are few and well-defined. The president is the commander-in-chief of the military, though he cannot declare war. He can issue pardons and sign treaties. He can appoint “judges, ambassadors, consuls, ministers and other officers” with the approval of the Senate. He signs or vetoes laws that are voted on by the House and Senate. And, from time to time, he must inform Congress about the state of the union.
Nowhere in the entire document does the Constitution mention that a president must have an exact policy agenda on everything. There is no constitutional duty to “nourish the national soul,” as Sen. John McCain proposed, nor that he must feel America’s pain, as President Bill Clinton often did. There is no power in the Constitution for the president to be the “commander-in-chief of the economy,” as Sen. Hillary Clinton aspired to be, nor one to “bring the prayers and concerns of the people of this country to this town of Greensburg, Kansas,” as President George W. Bush once did. Most importantly, there is no duty to act as ceremonial monarch and center of a cult of personality, which supporters of Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan worship to this day.
For all the complaints of President Bush’s abuses of power, enthralled campaign supporters of Obama made statements similar to the one Peggy Joseph made to her local news station following an October 30th campaign rally. “It was the most memorable time of my life. It was a touching moment because I never thought this day would ever happen. I won’t have to worry about putting gas in my car. I won’t have to worry about paying my mortgage. You know, if I help him, he’s gonna help me.” More moderate supporters might find such statements ridiculous, but the modern presidency has evolved into something with such high expectations that voters are bound to be disappointed.
The president is an individual person. He cannot singlehandedly “grow the economy.” Ms. Joseph may be very optimistic about the president’s ability to help her fill her car’s tank, but if the last eight years are any example, the president has very little power over that aspect of her life. Gas prices had been steadily rising, peaking at almost four dollars in the summer of 2008. It was a good talking point for the Democrats about Bush’s “failed economic policies,” but then something miraculous happened: gas prices fell to less than two dollars. Following the logic of leftist Bush detractors, this must be proof of his great success in helping the economy. Of course, that’s not true, but the high gas prices were not his fault either. For what it’s worth, the issue ended up briefly helping the Republicans, as many came out in support of lifting the offshore drilling ban, which actually would have lowered prices. But President Bush had already lifted the executive ban, so it was up to Congress to lift their own ban. Now that Obama has left the Senate, he has no vote in that matter, even if it was still an issue.
The president has no unilateral power to lower gas prices, increase home ownership, instantly lift the poor out of poverty, end racism, put a good teacher in every classroom, lower taxes, give healthcare to everyone, or invest in infrastructure. The power to legislate is vested in Congress, and Obama can either sign or veto whatever is put on his desk. He can use the high profile of the presidency to try to create popularity for his agenda, but he can’t vote on it.
The United States lives under a constitutional government with a separation of powers. The solution to all of the nation’s woes is not to place all of the power in the hands of a single person, regardless of that individual’s merit. Many Americans were repulsed by President Bush’s centralization of executive war powers, as no one man can or should be trusted to fight a war. Those same Americans should not support a potential centralization of executive economic powers under President Obama, as no one man can or should be trusted to run people’s economic lives for them. Obama worshippers should lower their expectations, and Obama himself must not overstep his constitutional bounds: the government requires an executive, not a king.
Mr. Danzig is a freshman who has not yet declared a major.