The presidency got out of its box, and it's destroying us. Not the president: the presidency.
Every four years, we choose the person who's allegedly going to run the country, and then he sets out to put the entire nation on the path of his personal will. We're now living through “Bidenomics,” the current president says, because the person occupying the White House has put the finances of 330 million people on a course he's declared into being. The president shapes energy markets with his pen, signing oil, coal, and natural gas into decline or into ascendance through executive orders. Prices at the grocery store rise and fall as a supine Congress puts the president's budget priorities into action: let's do a few trillion more, man!
And so we start talking about the next president about 10 minutes after we inaugurate the new one, and people who live in Iowa are in perpetual danger of having idiots interrupt their breakfast. Campaign season starts every four years on January 21. Hey folks, how are those pancakes? I'm the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and I have a plan for America. You got a minute?
The explosive growth of a cancerous presidency that consumes 80% of the oxygen in the public sphere is another sign of a people without history — or a people with a cartoon history.
We forget, but the presidency was conceived as merely the head of one of three branches of one of several levels of government. The “Federalist Papers” studied the dangers of congressional tyranny at length, then waved away the fear that the president would become excessively powerful. Here, start with Federalist 69, which explores all the ways the new Constitution would bind executive power. The Article II branch is supposed to follow the Article I branch; the president is supposed to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
I suppose that worked for several months.
The change came in a series of steps, the most important of which were named Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt. Presidencies became “eras”: the New Deal, the Great Society. The personality of a single flawed man set the country on a new course.
This office shouldn't be anywhere near this important. School boards matter. City councils and county boards of supervisors matter, too. State legislatures matter a great deal. Without having a debate on the topic, we're grinding down the substance of federalism, centralizing power in one level of government, and then centralizing the power of that one level in one branch and, sort of, the symbol of one person. More about that last part in a moment.
This is national suicide. It means we hurdle between extremes on the power of a pen and a phone.
There's probably no solution on the horizon. Congress should reclaim its authority, but it won't. Witness the rage at Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) for daring to suggest that the Pentagon defer to congressional authority over the funding of abortion travel for service members, a choice Congress never made. Congressional Republicans are angry at Tuberville for picking a damaging fight over the location of spending authority and the power to make national policy. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is now the legislature and has the power of the purse.
The paradoxical tragedy behind the absurdly excessive power of the presidency is the decline of the president as a significant participant in “the presidency.” Joe Biden naps at the beach while the president of the United States issues orders of exceptional importance. Sign here, Joe, then you can go back to sleep. Nominally all-powerful, the presidency is a mask for the administrative state and the permanent political class, the fixers and deep-state careerists. The president runs the country, wink wink.
In the absence of immediate political solutions, most of the solutions are cultural. Retreat to family and community. As much as possible, insulate and quarantine from a centralized power that doesn’t know limits. But don’t be deceived, because that power reaches into every aspect of your life at all times, and it aspires to ever-greater power.
Over the longer term, we need a few things that will be hard to get. We need to elect people to Congress who will do something, seeing their constitutional authority and working to exercise it. We need courts that will strike down overly broad executive decrees, not just the overly broad executive decrees of Orange Man Bad.
Here’s an actual news headline from last week: "Federal judge again declares DACA immigration program unlawful, but allows it to continue." We need governors and state legislatures that will fight for federalism and resist federal intrusion. And we need a president — here I descend into pure fantasy — who will recognize the limits of the office.
Yes, I know, but stop laughing.
Finally, California’s legislature, in partnership with Governor Derek Zoolander, is demanding an Article V convention to amend the Second Amendment and limit gun ownership. We might consider taking California up on the offer but then driving the meeting between states in a radically different direction. The dangers of a new constitutional convention would be considerable, but so would the opportunities. Every day that we don't limit the American presidency, it limits us. We need to fix it or die trying. It's our future.
Chris Bray is a former infantry soldier who earned his Ph.D. in history at UCLA. He writes at Tell Me How This Ends on Substack.