By Fred Ferreira*
Gene Healy’s The Cult of the Presidency is one of those books that makes you stop and ponder the conceptions that you held before reading it. Healy discusses how the Office of the President of the United States expanded its power from its constitutional limits established in the 18th century to an office that encompasses characteristics of kingship and priesthood. Even though the book focuses primarily on the American experience, the problems that he points out are not exclusively American. Problems such as relying on the executive power to respond to every single piece of news that makes to the front page of the papers is shared by many democracies that exist on Earth.
The American experience as recounted by Healy takes into account how successive wars and Presidents with expansive theories related to executive power have resulted in the current office that people have come to know. One of the most illustrative examples discussed is how the President’s annual message to Congress, as required by the Constitution under Article II Section 3, became what we know today as the State of the Union. Early Presidents refrained from addressing specific legislative measures and most of them even refused to deliver the message orally to Congress. As he describes
“[c]hanges in the form of the address (from written to spoken – and televised) and its intended audience (from Congress to the American public at large) had significant effects on the State of the Union’s content. By the second half of the 20th century, the SOTU had become the speech we know today: a passel of promises and demands on the public fisc, greeted with repeated standing ovations from members of a coordinate branch. The policy agenda outlined therein had become more specific and far more ambitious, with presidents promising to do such things as educate the nation’s children, heal the sick, and bring democracy to the world” (p.87).
In this regard, the current State of the Union follows the described pattern, even though Healy does not address if and how the Obama administration continued with enlarged executive power. This passage of the State of the Union in 2009 shows President Obama discussing specific legislative terms whilst promising that they will find a cure for cancer through his efforts.
One of the important elements that Healy explores in his text is the different roles that an American President assumes when he takes his oath of office. There are at least seven tasks that he discusses that are outside the instituted expectations. They include being the chief legislator of the nation, the manager of prosperity, protector of peace, tribune of the people, voice of the people, world leader and even consoler in chief. All these tasks involve having responsibilities and accountability over elements that the President has no constitutional control over, such as being the manager of prosperity. The possibility of controlling the outcome of economic activities is a power that not even absolutist kings enjoyed, let alone democratically elected presidents. The point made by Healy is that if the people expect and hold the President accountable for situations that are out of his control or powers, there will be an institutional impulse to seek more power in order to be capable to address these problems.
This problem of executive power over-reach takes an especially interesting form in Brazil, where the Constitution envisions more responsibilities and more power to the executive branch. Even if the President has the responsibility and the power to provide happiness and prosperity, in forms of universal health care, public education and housing, the office-holder still has an impulse to meddle with issues that are out of their area of responsibility. One of the more innocent examples is that both Presidential candidates during the 2010 supported the calling of specific players to the national soccer team.
An interesting element that comes to my mind is how Parliamentary Systems deal with the expansion of the executive power in making itself responsible for even larger portions of the national life. The Parliamentary System has a built-in checks and balances system different from the Presidential counter-part, since a PM’s membership on both powers can be seen as an incentive for the preservation of the Legislative, rather than completely dismissing it through the Executive. Furthermore, Healy deals with the Presidential isolation, physically and mentally, as they are surrounded by advisers that are rewarded by their loyalty to the office-holder and by security personnel whose goal is to keep him away from every conceivable physical harm. A Prime-Minister enjoys some of this isolation when holding the executive office, but there is a constant need for that individual to also fulfill his tasks as a member of the legislative and to pay attention to his constituents. Those questions have the potential to help one better understand the incentives embedded in the current political systems.
The exercise of executive power in a democracy is one of the most important determinants of the behavior of the country internationally, and neo-realists and neo-liberals alike put the international unity of the country as a paramount element of their theories. Healy’s debate on the exercise of the executive power is something that serious students of the State should take into consideration. The proper role of the executive is an interesting discussion that people from different backgrounds might disagree on and helps to define the scope and goals of the government in general. A discussion that I believe could be fostered through this forum.
* Fred Ferreira is an M.A. candidate at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University in Washington, DC. He writes on UNSC resolutions at:http://seizedofthematter.blogspot.com/
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