Once Upon a Time, There Was a President ...

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Last week I wrote about why the myth of the magical hero-king— what others call the "Green Lantern" presidency—just won’t die. The reason? Because it seems the myth is in the interest of the presidents themselves!

In some ways, however, this particular myth is only one of the many ideas of the presidency that were essential in the institution’s development. Many of the things that presidents do, after all, aren’t explicitly in the Constitution, and many of the things we associate with the presidency weren’t done for years and years after the Constitution was adopted. A president just set a precedent, and it stuck. For a minor example, there’s the president’s Saturday radio address, invented by Ronald Reagan and then copied by everyone since, although Barack Obama added a twist with YouTube versions. There’s more: Everything from cabinet meetings to press conferences to “pardoning” Thanksgiving turkeys is part of the slowly built-up White House job requirements.

Congress, on the other hand, has its role well delineated in the Constitution. After all, the framers knew all about Congresses and parliaments—but they were inventing the presidency from scratch. There had never been anything like it.

In my pocket copy of the Constitution, Article I—setting up the Congress—goes on for about nine pages and is full of detail. The House shall choose a “Speaker and other officers.” Both chambers “shall keep a Journal” of their actions, and there are even provisions for what to do if they need to keep some of their business secret. And of course there are all the enumerated powers in Section 8, telling Congress exactly what they should write laws about.

Contrast that with Article II. That’s only four pages in my edition, less than half as long. And of that, a good chunk of it is devoted to laying out the convoluted rules of the Electoral College. There are really only five paragraphs that say anything about the responsibilities and duties of the president, and even then a good deal of it is about the limitations (“with the Advice and Consent of the Senate”). Yes, the president can “require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments,” but that’s not much of a power, I don’t think—although it’s better than my favorite presidential power: that he can “recommend” to Congress “such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient." That's a power he happens to share with pretty much every living citizen.

The truth is that outside of a few big ones—commander in chief, nominations—a whole lot of the formal powers of the presidency comes down to “the executive Power shall be vested in a President” and “he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Beyond that, the job is mostly an empty shell filled up with 44 presidencies worth of precedents. Some of these precedents wind up being enshrined in law, but others are just shared expectations of the job.

A lot of the traditions of the office are nevertheless close to binding. Imagine if Barack Obama (or imagine if the new president in 2017) just decided to submit his State of the Union message in writing, instead of delivering it in person to the joint session of Congress. That’s how presidents after Thomas Jefferson and before Woodrow Wilson did it; it’s how Abraham Lincoln did it. Yet a president who tried it now would be playing defense for days, maybe weeks, on what would ultimately be a fairly trivial point. Going against expectations just isn’t worth it, at least unless something very large is at stake.

But beyond single actions, images of the presidency inform the entire enterprise. The idea that presidents have a legislative agenda—following the lead of Wilson, and especially Franklin Roosevelt—is considered a perfectly normal part of the job now (yes, some nineteenth century presidents had legislative ideas, but it wasn’t quite the same). So is the idea that presidents will attend summits to negotiate with allies, and even enemies—the idea that the president is the leading figure on the world stage. And so is the idea that the president will be mourner-in-chief in the case of national tragedies.

In each case, the expectations of both these roles give the president influence; the expectation that presidents will have a legislative program and that Congress will treat it as part of its agenda gives his power to “recommend” a force that the empty Constitutional provision doesn’t appear to have. At the same time, it constrains him—recall, for example, criticisms of Barack Obama for not visiting Israel, or one can go back to criticisms of Ronald Reagan for not meeting with Soviet leaders during his first term. 

Or consider another expectation: that a president will unveil new initiatives in the State of the Union Address. In some ways, it’s a bit of an oddity; why can’t a president simply repeat the agenda he’s already been working on? Or for that matter, why can’t a president report on past triumphs? But no, the State of the Union must be filled with a laundry list of current proposals, and if there’s nothing new then the pundits, the opposition, and even his own party may complain that the presidency is growing stale. So they find something. Indeed, one of George W. Bush’s greatest successes, his initiative to fight HIV/AIDS in Africa, may well have happened because he needed a feel-good something new in his 2003 State of the Union speech.

When we see presidents act, what we’re usually seeing isn’t the words of the Constitution in action—we’re seeing attempts to copy what George Washington, or Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Roosevelt did, or even what Cleveland or Taft or Carter did, or perhaps even old stories about kings. Those stories of presidents and kings, and not the Constitution, are responsible for much of what makes the presidency such a formidable office.

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