Thursday, February 25, 2016

Cabana Boys, Confucians, and Constitutions: Defining the American Presidency for the American Voter

Warren K. Leffler or Thomas J. O'Halloran. (1964) Delegates and Stage of the 1964 Election
 U.S. News & World Report Magazine, via the Library of Congress 



We are in the midst of a season, a year-long series of ceremonies and contests and debates: melodrama in the most true sense of the word.

It’s election season. 

Though there will be many elections in the coming year, only one dominates the national media, demanding the complete attention of every reporter, analyst, campaigner, and (insofar as possible) voter: the race for the presidency. 

This is a frustrating time for me, as a political scientist.

On the one hand this is the time of the political scientists – our particular species of monster is again on the wax as the media remembers my kind exists and reports seeks us out in our caves and warrens and ivory towers.  I try to act indignant, as if hurt that I wasn’t remembered for three years, but honestly, I’m not.  I am excited.  I’m relevant. 

But on the other hand I am annoyed.  I’m annoyed because the questions I’m asked, all too often, aren’t the right questions.  Sometimes they reflect a misunderstanding of the American political process, the barest outlines of complex truths, leading to error after error.  Other times they are loaded, directed, intended to lead me to an ideologically charged conclusion.  

The effect can only be described as something akin to being the prettiest girl at a prom full of gentlemen who think I really like being punched in the gut, or pretend to think as much, which is much the same thing in the end. 

I want to write a bit, with your patience, about one of these misunderstandings – the fact that most Americans don’t know what the president’s job actually is. 

*   *   *

Earl Leaf (1946) from The Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images via Best of the Web Shrine 
This isn’t unimportant.  Think of it like this – imagine you’re hiring for a job – one of the jobs I had in my youth was that of a – well, let’s call it what it was – I was cabana boy.  I prepared and served drinks for people who were sitting beside of a swimming pool, usually with alcohol, sometimes with fruit. 

I hated this job, but it was easy and it paid, so for a few months it met my requirements. 

Now, in this job I needed certain skills – I needed to be 21, I needed to be literate, I needed to know how to mix a relatively narrow range of alcoholic drinks, I needed to be able to take orders and speak formally to people, I needed to be able to maintain a sanitary workplace. 

Another job I had, which I also wasn’t fond of, but which again was easy and paid, was milk guy.  I don’t think this is a formal term for the job, but I hesitate to write milk man since that implies a Technicolor wonderland of gentlemen in uniforms delivering creams and milks and butter to the porches of Mr. and Mrs. All-American.  No, I had none of that – this was the 1990s and such pleasantries were well past. I worked in a grocery store and, usually, my job was dealing with milk and milk-related products.  Stacking them.  Unstacking them.  Arranging them.  Checking them for freshness. Giving useful milk-based advice.  Storing them.  Recording their movements like they were chimpanzees and I was Jane Goodall. 

Milk guy. 

Okay.  Now imagine you’re hiring cabana boys and you don’t really spend any time thinking about what cabana boys actually do.  You might have hired me because of my perfect, chiseled abs and rock-hard body (cough), reflecting your familiarity with PoliceAcademy 5: Assignment Miami Beach but not your understanding of alcoholic beverage control laws or the principles of bar management.  It is entirely possible, dare I say it likely, you might hire a milk guy, and the only drinks served properly would be white Russians (which, by the way, are not ordered with any frequency poolside).  The effect – failure, in the worst instance, or at least a long and steep learning curve that, had the definition been known and adhered to in the hiring process, would not have been necessary for the bar to endure. 

And there is the rub – the jobs of elected officials are, in every case, more important than the job of cabana boy.  

I know.  

The truth, sometimes, hurts. 

*   *   *
Associated Press (1964) Barry Goldwater Accepting the Republican Nomination
Via The Daily Beast 
No elected official is more powerful than the President of the United States – it has been said so many times that it is easy to miss the implications of the statement.  But I want to examine, for a moment, what it means.  First, there is the true part of the statement. 

No political system has ever been as powerful as the United States of America.  This is not hyperbole.  It is fact.  In absolute terms the United States dwarfs the power of any single political system that has ever existed previously.  We spend approximately half of the global military budget.  We have more nuclear weapons than any nation other than Russia, but ours are of higher quality and, frankly, are more likely to actually launch (not that one needs to play chicken over this – after all, there is no question both the Russians and the Americans have the ability to kill virtually all life on the planet in about 30 minutes at will).  The American economy is the largest that has ever existed in the history of humanity, its level of development rivaled only by a few, generally smaller states – and though its relative size has shrunk over the years from a peak of around 75% of the global total gross domestic product right after the Second World War to around 15% today, it still is easily the largest and most durable – around US$ 17.5 trillion a year, compared to around US$10.4 trillion for the People’s Republic of China, and US$ 4.6 for Japan – the European Union as a whole outstrips us, but it has no proper unified foreign policy and its economy is – well – problematic in terms of its degree of integration and quality – it comes in at around a US$ trillion larger than the United States, but it also includes 28 different independent states – so – problematic. 

The United States directly controls a continent and dominates absolutely an entire hemisphere.  The United States has the third largest population of any nation on earth – not just today, but ever, coming in at a third of a billion people.  American mass media dominates the discourse of the planet; American science and higher education remain the dominant intellectual force on Earth. Hell, you could even say, with only the slightest hyperbole, the reason the United States is relatively less powerful than it was in the 1950s is that we have been so successful at propagating our political and economic values and institutions around the world – for the first time in human history the majority of people live in systems with essentially free political and economic systems, entwined in a system of international institutions that, for all its flaws, has still generated a period of amazing peace – the longest period the world has gone without an international war between great powers in recorded history

The United States isn’t perfect.  But by god it is powerful.  Amazingly so. 

And, so, saying that the political actor who holds the most power in the United States, by definition the most powerful person in the Union, is the most powerful elected official in the world is a simple truism.

But the president is not absolutely powerful within the United States – were he (or perhaps, someday, she) would no longer be the president as we conceptualize the office today, but an authoritarian, an absolutist.  Thus as powerful as the president is, within his own nation he is not as powerful as the executives of many nations are within the bounds of their own nation. 

This is part of why knowing the president’s job description is so important – in an authoritarian regime the executive is responsible, ultimately, for everything.  The people need not worry whether their ruler is somehow ideal for a given job – he or she has all the jobs and, as such, will almost inevitably be pretty bad at it.  The reason?  Specialization, for one – we are better if we have the time to dedicate to building up particular areas of expertise (check with Plato’s Republic).  Secondly, and at least as importantly, is that rulers are human – they have limited time, limited abilities to process information efficiently and accurately.  The effect of giving too much power to any one person or institution is a sort of intellectual logjam. 

The other part is equally important.  The United States is one of many nations, historically and contemporaneously, where the political philosophy in action is premised on the belief that there should be limits on what governments should be able to do with regards to and for society.  The problem is that when people acquire power we almost instinctively and inevitably try to both preserve what power we have and to expand that power insofar as we are able.  There is nothing nasty or monstrous in this – it is simply our nature.  That said, it can lead to nasty and monstrous things – political systems which violate the ethics held by their citizens, becoming parasites on society rather than protectors and shepherds thereof. 

This is why we designed the system we have – one in which the various parts of the government check and balance one another.  Sure, they may do so in some instances out of altruism, but equally, they do so because the absolute success of any other branch would mean the complete loss of power by the members of the other two branches.  In other words, be they saints or selfish, a balance of power system is intended to make the American republic durable by limiting the job descriptions of the governmental bodies and, equally, making them rely on one-another in order to do their jobs. 

It is Byzantine.  It is labyrinthine.  It is all sorts of other words that mean confusing and over-complicated.  But by and large, it has been successful.   But it can only remain so as long as both the electorate and the three branches retain essentially the same understanding of each branch’s respective powers and responsibilities – their job descriptions.

*   *   *

Associated Press (1960) John F. Kennedy's Nomination Acceptance Speech,
via The American Prospect 
So, we’re all on the same page now.  We agree that the president actually doing the job assigned to him or her is important, both because it is the minimum expectation of the boss (us) and because it is the only way to prevent overreach and the decline and fall of democratic-republicanism.  Cool. 

So what is the president’s job description? 

I got crazy [irony] and decided to go to the job advertisement-in-chief.

That’s right.  The Constitution. 

When you go to the Constitution one of the things that is surprising about the presidency is that it is clearly not the principal concern of the founding fathers.  Why do I say that?  Because they don’t spend that much time on it.  Well, relatively speaking. 

Consider – the main body of the Constitution is divided into articles, each of which addresses a particular subject area.  The first three of these address the principle divisions of the Federal government – the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.  The legislative branch is the center of attention – it gets 2267 words across ten sections.  Now compare this to the executive branch – 1025 words total across four sections – less than half the same length. 

Of these only 357 words are actually dedicated to what the president actually does.  I know – I double-checked myself.  The founders dedicated less length to the job of the president than I usually have for an online recommendation letter for one of my students. 

*   *   *

Associated Press (1980) Reagan Accepts the Republican Nomination,
via Daily News
Before diving into the long and short of what the president must do it is worth noting what the eligibility limitations on persons hoping to run for the office are.  Why?  Simply because knowing these has the potential to inform our understanding of the office’s role as originally conceptualized – its significance relative to other positions in the Federal government. 

The Constitution is only clear about four minimum qualifications to be eligible for the White House.  First, to sit as president a candidate must have been an American citizen since their birth (unless they were born before the adoption of the American constitution – but since that was in 1789, well, unlikely).  This presents a bit of an interesting question – what constitutes citizenship since birth?  Well, it isn’t necessarily residency in the United States – in fact, the Constitution only requires that a president have been a resident of the United States four fourteen years prior to their candidacy (the second of our qualifications) – that of course means that they either have a legal residence in the United States or are stationed as an officeholder of the United States overseas – though the latter two interpretations, which allow for foreign serving diplomats and soldiers, for instance, to become president, is dependent upon court and congressional interpretations of the meaning of residency. 

Does citizenship mean that you were born in the United States in geographic terms?  Well, no – not really – of course sometime in the future Congress or the courts might redefine the meaning, but in the United States we generally stick to an approach to citizenship that is relatively flexible – if you are born in the United States you are a citizen (clarified and guaranteed under the 14thAmendment) if your parents have you so declared, or you are born to at least one American citizen while on the high seas or in another nation and your parent or parents declare you to be an American citizen.  That’s right – it rather much makes the Obama controversy a few years back seem awfully silly – his mother was an American citizen, so it doesn’t matter where he was born – Hawai’i, Chicago, Canada, Kenya, or Mars, he is a native-born citizen.  End debate. 

Okay – two prerequisites out of the way.  The third is a matter of age – you can’t be president until your 35th birthday has come and gone.  This is merely an attempt by the Founders to bias the candidacy options towards greater maturity – unsurprising, it falls on a clear and regular trend line from 25 for eligibility for the House of Representatives and 30 for the Senate – the harder the job is to get, the older you have to be. 

Well, certainly that is part of it.  The other role age plays is probably a reflection of the logic of other representative systems of government, from some of the Greek city-states to many (if not most) native American nations.  Put simply, roles would be allotted in the government according to whether the representatives would be younger, and therefore more hot-headed and prone to support the active use of warfare as a political option, while other roles were allotted to older persons, under the assumption that their experience would have decreased their ardor for war, making them more likely to support diplomatic solutions to crises. 

In other words, the intention might have been to make the President, who will be (as discussed below) in charge of actually committing American military forces to combat, hesitant to do so and careful in how he or she does it.  Interesting, eh?

Finally, if you want to run for president you can’t have been president for too long a time already.  This is the presidential term limit – a bar for preventing presidents from becoming presidents-for-life (a disturbingly common phenomenon in many nations).  The Founders didn’t put this term limit into the Constitution – it was only added in the mid-Twentieth Century with the ratification of the Twenty-Second Amendment.  Let me quote the first sentence of that Amendment, which is what is really relevant to the discussion here: “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once.”

In other words, someone who is otherwise eligible to run for the presidency loses it upon either (1) his or her second election to that office or (2) his or her holding of the office in excess of two years. 

That’s it.  Those are the minimum requirements, the prerequisites, the gotta’-haves.   

Okay.  Well.  Maybe.

Check out Article 2, Section 4: “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”  Interesting, you say, but doesn’t this speak to questions of removing a president from office, not barring a candidate from becoming president?  Well, yes, but there is also an implication here – conviction of treason, bribery, high crimes or misdemeanors makes an individual ineligible for the office of the President if in office.  It is arguable, then, that the same would invalidate the eligibility of a potential candidate for the office.  Now, as far as I know, this hasn’t ever been heard by the courts, and one assumes that the filtering out of no-goodniks is a de facto outcome of the party selection process will for the foreseeable future prevent it from becoming a necessary object for the courts to consider, but nonetheless, the possibility remains. 

Put simply, the considerations for eligibility for the office of President are almost entirely practical matters and are kept as minimal and sensible as possible.  There are, as Article 6 makes clear and the Bill of Rights reiterates, no tests for candidacy – standards based upon religion, philosophy, ideology, or private (non-criminal) behavior are no bar from candidacy.  Add in the Reconstruction Amendments and the 19thAmendment and ethnicity, race, and gender cease to be the basis of bars from candidacy.    That isn’t to say that these aren’t things voters and factions and parties actually pay attention to – that would be naïve in the extreme.  Rather, it is a statement that it is for society to decide the relevance of beliefs and ethics as elements in their choice in electing a president, not for the government to enforce a particular vision of what such a president should believe. 

*   *   *

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Campaigns in Atlanta in 1932
 Roosevelt’s Little White House State Historic Site
via The Buffalo News
Fair enough – now on to the meat of things.  What constitutes the occupation of the president once he or she actually takes office? 

This is interesting in part because, well, despite all my insinuations to the contrary, elected officers of the governments are quite different from private employees in at least one essential way – they are invested with, temporarily but effectively, the sovereign power of a state, in part at least.  The power isn’t theirs, of course – it remains the collective property of society as a whole – but that power nonetheless is theirs to exercise.  

This exercise, in properly functioning democratic-republics, is defined in several ways, but essentially it comes down to three elements.  First among these are the responsibilities entailed in an office.  Second, these offices may be defined in terms of their powers – political rights above and beyond those of an ordinary citizen that belong not to the individual holding an office but the office itself.  These powers define the office by restricting and defining the means by which the responsibilities of the office might be achieved.  Finally, all offices may be understood in terms of what powers they do not hold – powers that are allotted exclusively to other offices of state or, alternatively are reserved to society or no-one whatsoever.   These are not in every case enumerated in an office’s description, but may be implied by the description of other offices or the social contract (in other words the constitution) in general.

This is important because it tells us how to read the constitution and, thereby, informs us as the actual constitutional powers inherent to the Presidency (as currently defined) – we need to understand each stated responsibility of the President not only in reference to itself but also in reference to its limitations in means and scope.  

My reading of the Constitution gives seven broad obligations to the Presidency in Article 2 – let’s tackle each in its own time. 

Commander-in-Chief

The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States;

Article 2, Section 2, Paragraph 1

This is, unquestionably, the most important of the powers assigned to the Presidency.  But the question is what does it actually mean?  Well, the President is the highest ranking military officer in the United States of America.  That means he or she is in charge of administering the military in accordance with the laws and regulations that govern the military, within the budgetary constraints thereof, and further those which govern questions of national security, defining American allies, enemies, partners, and peers.  That is it. 

Now, this is still, as wise men say, a helluva’ lot of power, but it surely isn’t omnipotence – it means that the essence of what the President’s responsibility is lay not in defining and generating security policy, though clearly he or she is essential in that, but, ultimately, lay in carrying it out as made and clarified by Congress.  This gets clearer when we look at Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution – in fact, let me reproduce the relevant sections here:

The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

To provide and maintain a Navy;

To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

Now, I’ve trimmed this section down quite a bit, but certain things are clear – first, Congress is not part and party to the generating of foreign policy, but instead it is intended to be the central force thereof - this makes sense – it is the legislative branch of the state and the Presidency is, at least in theory, supposed to be principally an executive organ, carrying out the orders and requirements of Congress. 

This isn’t to say that the Presidency doesn’t hold some leeway when it comes questions of national security – of course it does, after all, questions of secrecy and expediency largely define our need to have an elected monarch in the first place, rather than just a legislature.  But presidents consistently overstep the bounds which the Founders set for them – including, by the by, some of the Founders themselves when they became presidents. 

In theory, at least, Congress recognizes this as a problem – that is why they passed the War Powers Act of 1973, in reaction to the presidential overreach that took an ugly little war in Vietnam and made it a decades long national nightmare (and caused the United States to violated both its own national principles and international law – international law the United States was, ironically, in many cases in large part responsible for the adoption of).  The response of the presidents?  To a one, since the passage of the War Powers Act, has been to assert that the legislation is unconstitutional and, insofar as possible, ignore it while keeping Congress just satiated enough to not to force the issue. 

Yet. 

Bureaucrat-in-Chief

. . . he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, . . .

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate . . . to appoint all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments. . .

Article 2, Section 2

The term Bureaucrat-in-Chief is, well, it sounds silly – but it also captures the essence of his or her role as the head of the bureaucratic system.  The President is, essentially, the individual who oversees the operation of the various bureaucracies of the United States – this includes of course the military bureaucracy, as described above, and the diplomatic bureaucracy, as described below, but it also includes the other bureaucratic organs of the United States.  Right? 

Well, yes and no.  

Read the above quoted Constitutional lines again.  The power of the president over the bureaucracies seems, largely, to oversee the operation of the civilian departments in a rather basic way – force the generation of documentation of policies and.   Of course the president also has the ability to appoint officers to the various bureaucratic bodies, though he or she is limited to appointing only those officers that Congress invests the President before the fact with the right to appoint and only with the consent of the Senate.   The Founders weren’t even that clear as to whether or not the President had the right to remove officials from office or whether that power lay exclusively with Congress – though of course in practice that power is shared by both, with the president being infinitely more likely to exercise it in any given case. 

And that, it seems, is it.   This is markedly different from the president’s power over the military – in that instance the president is a member of the military, part of the chain-of-command, and while he or she has to obey the law of the United States, he or she is still definitively and directly the final arbiter of policy of the military.  With the civilian bureaucracy there is no such integration, control is far more limited, and this becomes steadily more the case over time as the bureaucracy increasingly grows and becomes ever more defined by the civil service principle – a professionalization of the bureaucratic apparatus and, insofar as possible, a depolitization of the various bureaucracies’, hiring, firing, promotion, and regulation powers.

In other words the President’s role seems to be to act as an organ of oversight of the civilian bureaucracy, on behalf of the Congress, and as a coordinator of policy generation and information collectivization across bureaucracies.  Of course there is also the president’s role in maintaining an immediate connection of the bureaucracies with the democratic impulse of society at any given moment, but that is again only in the limited form of public appointments which are limited by the Senate and, more broadly, by Congress in terms of the definition of what offices may or may not be appointed.   

What is intriguing is that Presidents typically exercise their influence over the bureaucracy through proclamations and executive orders – these are essentially statements of policy, often based upon acts of Congress, which not only confirm the existence of a law but interpret it into practical orders on which the bureaucracy is supposed to act.  While clearly there is reason to assume these executive actions are entirely sensible in the context of the military and foreign policy bureaucracy it is more difficult to argue that the Constitution gives this power to the President him or herself in terms of the remaining bureaucracy.  The assumption has long been that this is an implied power – how is the President to act as the executive of state if he or she lacks the ability to coordinate and organize the bureaucratic bodies, after all, other than through the blunt instrument of appointments and influence over budget and law through veto politics (see below)?  Yet there is no clear assertion of such a power in the Constitution and it seems that precedents established by early presidents, such as Washington, in their control over the very limited bureaucratic apparatus at their disposal (three departments – War, State, and Treasury – two of which the President’s right to issue detailed orders to is rather clear) have crept and expanded as the number of bureaucracies has expanded – despite the very real possibility that those other bureaucracies might have been intended to be more independent of the Executive power than has in fact become the case. 

Diplomat-in-Chief

. . . he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, . . .

He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, . . . and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

                                                                 Article 2, Section 2

As you read the excerpts from Article 2 at the head of this subsection, you’ll note some overlap.  This is intentional, both on the Founders part and mine in the illustration.  It isn’t that the powers of the Presidency are identical in questions of foreign policy and domestic bureaucratic matters – as we’ll see, they aren’t – but the essential apparatus for regulating the relative powers of the President and Congress are doing double-duty in this instance. 

So then, what are the powers of the president over questions diplomatic?   On the one hand the President is empowered to appoint major diplomatic actors, both in the role of executives of particular bureaucratic organs and in roles as representatives of the United States in discussions with other sovereign powers.   Obviously in the first part diplomatic affairs hardly vary from domestic affairs – in the second, however, we see the essential extension of the Presidency, the executive office, into persons beyond the president him or herself.

Consider – the President is empowered to negotiate treaties on behalf of the United States.  Granted, this power is limited – the President must seek the advice and consent of the Senate, but the right of first innovation lay exclusively with the President.  This makes sense of course – too many negotiating positions presented simultaneously would both complicate the American position and undermine it.   As such, however, the President’s representatives are clearly interlocutors operating on his or her behalf – their negotiations have no meaning at all in the absence of presidential signature and, equally, are unable to reach the Senate in the absence Presidential presentation.   The effect is that the diplomatic corps are as effectively under the domination of the president as the military is – granted the foreign affairs apparatus remains essentially civilian in nature, but the equivalency in terms of presidential preeminence is nonetheless undeniable.  

Other Powers

The President’s other powers and duties, while not insignificant in their importance, are more elegant in their nature – they’re not only easier to explain but their scope and variety of implications are more limited as well.  There are five such responsibilities. 

First, the president has the power to make Federal judicial appointments – or, more particularly, the president is guaranteed the right to appoint judges to the Supreme Court, pending Senate approval, and such other courts that Congress both establishes and designates as being administered by officers of state appointed by the President.  This is interesting because generally it is taken for granted that, of Constitutional necessity, all judges, Supreme and inferior, must be appointed by the President but, in fact, that is not the case – Article II clearly states that such appointment power may be given to inferior executive officers or, even more interestingly, to the Courts themselves (a model which is increasingly common in other nations). 

This power is a one-off – Presidents have the ability to appoint, and assuming their appointments pass Senate scrutiny, they must have faith that their judicial appointees will continue to act according to their already established ideological patterns.  This is important since it, in effect, allows Presidents to continue to influence the generation and interpretation of policy long after they leave office – indeed, even after their death, through the principal of judicial review. Yet there is no guarantee that judges shall remain unchanged – indeed, judges frequently moderate over time and, occasionally, shift their ideological center radically. 

The second of these more discrete powers is the veto option.  The Constitution outlines the ins and outs of the veto, but it is easily understood – legislation passed in Congress may be vetoed by the President, and thereby prevented from attaining the status of law.  This veto must, in most circumstances, be accompanied by an explanation, explaining the reasons and rationale for veto – the reason for this being that the veto is, at least theoretically, intended to be a sort of discussion between the President and Congress, one in which the merits of a bill are considered and in which the President attempts to persuade Congress to amend or drop the bill, with the understanding that Congress can overturn the veto.  Of course in practice vetoes are rarely overturned – the Founders established an extremely difficult standard for veto overturn – a 2/3rds vote in both houses of Congress – in contrast to many nations where vetoes are “softer,” meaning that the necessary vote for an overturn is merely a revote with simple majority rule.    As such vetoes are constitute an important source of power in the United States and, rightly or wrongly, a stick that allows the President to force his or her way into legislative debates that, otherwise, very likely would not exist. 

Third, the President also has the ability to adjourn or convene Congress under very specific types of circumstances. The Adjournment power is, in essence, all but nonexistent – if the two houses cannot agree on when to end a session of Congress the President has the right to determine when such adjournment should occur and for how long.  More importantly, the President has the right to call Congress into emergency session in order to respond to, well, emergencies. 

I find the emergency session power important as well – it implies that the power of the President vis-à-vis Congress is, again, intended to be fairly limited – the President may act as a policy-innovator only in the very short term, and only within bounds already established by Congress – emergencies believed by the President to necessitate a change in those bounds, or the budgets that enable governmental action, well, Congress has to make those decisions.  Or, at least, it is supposed to.  

The President also has a fairly unique power – the ability to pardon or grant reprieve (a commutation of sentence) of the sentences of particular individuals.   This power is intended to allow the democratic urge to influence an elected official and generate a check on sentences deemed legally appropriate but, nonetheless, in some way, shape, or form unjust.  Ironically, pardons and commutations are fairly rare, despite their potential sources of policy influence for Presidents, since to use this power often threatens to make Presidents appear, in some lights at least, as if they are “soft” of crime.  As such, look for this power to be used principally in the months between a the conclusion of the last electoral cycle a President takes part in (as a candidate or an advocate) and the swearing in of the next President – a narrow window indeed.

Finally, the President is required submit a report of the state of the Union to Congress annually. While this is usually done in the form of a speech, and in the age of mass communication is shared publically on radio and television as it is delivered, there is no requirement that the report be delivered in such a manner – in fact, Washington himself typically delivered his as written reports that would also be published in the major newspapers of the day. 

The state of the Union address is important not because of it actually carries any intrinsic significance as a law-making or even a law-interpreting document.  Rather, its importance is as an agenda-setting tool – it is the single political document most universally disseminated by the Federal government each year, the most likely platform for the announcement of policy changes in the military and foreign policy, and a device for framing debate in terms advantageous to the ideological and practical agenda of the President and his or her allies. 

*   *   *

Peter Stackpole (1952) The 1952 Presidential Convention
 Time Life Pictures/Getty Images via Encyclopedia Britannica Kids
Something should be clear to even the most casual student of politics at this point.  The official description of the President’s job responsibilities and our common understanding thereof are in a condition of dissonance – to use a formal term, they’re all outta’ whack. 

I’m going to put aside the actual operation of the Presidency – it can be (and I’d argue should be) said that Congress has ceded too much power to the Presidency – some of this is natural, a gradual creep over time in which the President is empowered to deal with crises domestic and international, economic and strategic, repeatedly and constantly – it is rather like the guy in the office who always does everything, or the one person in a group project who does all the research and writing – whoever does the work, ultimately, does the work – except that in politics the whoever in question isn’t a finite individual working on a single project, but an institution building upon historical precedent over centuries. 

But I digress.

What is more important, at least for the purpose of this article, is how little the American people understand the obvious priorities built into the Constitution.  And by obvious priorities I mean this:

The President’s job is to run the foreign policy and national policy apparatus and, secondarily, to monitor, guide, and coordinate domestic bureaucratic initiatives, make appointments, and act as a check on radicalization of legislative agendas. 

That’s the job folks.  That’s the cabana boy. 

On the other hand, when Americans are polled about what issues they consider most important when selecting a president they nearly inevitably rank domestic economic and social affairs above international and security affairs.  Inherently this is not a problem – except that we allow this bias of attention to dictate our choice in not only of our local, state, and Congressional officials, but of President as well. 

Milk guy.

*   *   *
Theodore Roosevelt Campaigning in Los Angeles (1912) via The Los Angeles Times
Flip back to the front of this article.  Don’t worry.  I’ll wait here.  I’m a patient fellow. 

Back?  Good.  You probably noticed that while I’ve written a lot about the Constitution, and more than any political scientist in history has on the subject of cabana boys, I haven’t addressed the topic of Confucians yet.  Don’t worry.  I haven’t forgotten.

The Confucian politicalphilosophy is a fascinating one – really worth reading about if you have the time.  I’m not going to review the whole megillah here, however.  No, I’m going to only touch on one subject, an idea called the rectification of names. 

You see, Confucius argued that all of us were capable of becoming more ethical, of improving our degree of political and social responsibility through a lifestyle driven by conscious self-cultivation.  At the core of self-cultivation lay was process known as the rectification of names.

The idea of rectification of names is easy enough to understand.  First, and essentially, one must understand what titles, or names, are properly applied to oneself.  This is an act of introspection, and equally, a deeply social act – our names may be professional, but equally they are relational.  Emperor to minister; father to child; elder sibling to younger sibling; husband to wife – I could go on forever, but the point is clear enough – our relationships define us, they name us.

This isn’t the end of things, however. 

Each name that can be ascribed to us implies different moral obligations, Confucius would argue, different types of service, different types of obedience, different types of mentorship and different types of restraint.  To improve ourselves, to self-cultivate our persons, we must understand what these responsibilities consist of and, insofar as possible, seek to fulfill them.  In so we not only are acting morally but are modeling morality to others and, thereby, inclining them to right-living which have a sort of ethical domino effect through society.

I don’t agree with everything about Confucius’ understanding of the rectification of names.  He was gender-biased and authoritarian, far too hierarchist for modern American me, but I forgive him – he was a man of a very different time and culture, after all – and I try not to throw out the baby.  I accept, in other words, his notion that rectifying behavior to accord with the names ascribed to an office, or a relationship, as a way of ethical self-improvement I still find solid, though I might hold different notions of what the obligations of those offices and relationships might be. 

Indeed, I’d take Confucian thought a step further.  You see, East Asian thought never, to our knowledge, independently developed concepts analogous to the Western philosophical notions of democracy or republicanism.  This means, on the one hand, that the idea of a citizen in the sense of a majoritarian political system simply wasn’t addressed – the implications of that name, of the citizen, remain unaddressed.  Yet this is important.   Among other things, of course, being a citizen implies a responsibility to participate in the collective decision-making process of one’s polity – to vote in elections and referendums. 

This isn’t all though.  Merely voting is not a fully rectified name.  No – to vote in a way that is responsible, ethical, wholly proper, necessitates voting in an informed manner and, equally, voting on those points which are relevant to the question of the vote. 

This necessitates, of course, that the citizen remain continuously informed about the political events of the day, and that they acculturate themselves, reading the great works and honing their skills as intellectuals.  But equally it means understanding the nature of the objects of their vote – including the meaning of the names, or titles, that they are voting based upon. 

Mayor; alderman; governor; representative; senator, and, dare I say it? 

President. 

And this is the conclusion, the point where it all comes together.  If we want an ethical, successful nation we must engage in self-cultivation, the rectification of names.  That means being good citizens, on the one hand, and, as such, making the decision to vote for our leaders based not on pointless or facile or irrelevant points, but based on the meaning of the name inherent to the position and a simple question – does the candidate actually qualify for the position, do they live up to the name?  In the case of a presidential candidate, are they principally equipped to be national security and foreign policy specialists of the very highest caliber? 

Or, instead, are they just cabana boys?