What Kind of President Do We Need in 2016? A Boring One, Please.Posted: June 26, 2014
Kevin D. Williamson and George Will hit the nail on the head with columns questioning the outsized importance of the presidency. I’ve linked them together here because they share this theme, a subject that’s been on my mind. It’s particularly relevant today because of the Supreme Court’s decisive smackdown of presidential overreach.
It’s been observed, by Glenn Reynolds, P.J. O’Rourke, and others, that that life in America was better and freer when the Presidency wasn’t so important. It almost didn’t matter which gang of crooks ran the White House, because most politics was local, not national, and the limitations on Presidential power insured that not much damage could be done. The Federal government was distant, and wonderfully irrelevant to the daily lives of most Americans. Local government mattered. Presidents could occupy themselves with foreign policy, negotiating trade agreements, responding to national emergencies, and making occasional speeches. Most of the time, the country can run itself pretty much on its own.
In the last few generations, presidential importance and power has quietly increased. Then, exploded. Presidential elections are all-consuming, winner-take-all contests that consume enormous resources, and draw undue attention. There’s an unseemly preoccupation with presidential spectacle, the wonder and majesty of it all.
My personal rant: Since when are presidents are expected to set a national agenda, drive the country in important new directions, hatch important new plans? Since when are presidents measured by the success or failure of their grand vision for the country? (answer: the progressive era) Two phrases that illustrate this increasingly poisonous trend: “signature legislation”, and “historic legacy”. When we see or hear the phrase “signature legislation”, journalists and talking heads are stroking the president’s self-image, and indulging the malignant nationalist “great figure” hero fantasy. “Signature legislation” should be a banned phrase, it’s emblematic of this growing bubble of unrealistic expectations. As if the ego of the President is something we should all participate in helping to protect and preserve, for history. I’m sorry, but I’m not interested. Count me out.
That the presidency is increasingly imperial, and disturbingly monarchial, is not even a question. Economically, it’s self-evident. Kings and Queens live and travel more modestly than the president. Mark Steyn pointed out that the cost of presidential maintenance — Air Force One, the White House Staff, all the perks — now exceeds that of all the world’s monarchies combined.
Government service shouldn’t be so attractive, even at the executive level. President Clinton, when showing the Oval office to guests who had never seen it, jokingly referred to it as the “crown jewel of the American penal system”. Though Clinton enjoyed the benefits and survived the hazards of the outsized presidency, that was a rare moment of self-deprecating awareness about the burden of the presidency, and an appreciation for its limits.
I agree with Will, and Williamson. I’ve had my fill of presidential drama, give me a boring president. Please.
As I was lunching with a few conservative political types earlier this week, the subject turned, as it does, to the 2016 field. When the name of a highly regarded former governor came up, the judgment was unequivocal: “He’s just so . . . boring.” That was not intended as an endorsement.
It should be.
“What greeted Barack Obama during his ascent was excitement that bled into reverence — it is easy to forget, with the demigod in his now diminished state, that his admirers were literally singing hymns to him. Exciting, in the same way that a head-on collision in a speeding Cadillac is exciting…”
Barack Obama has been anything but boring. “May you live in exciting times” may be a fake Chinese curse, but the wisdom communicated therein is real. Thought experiment: Consider the presidency of Barack Obama from the point of view of the sort of person who is likely to support such men. Having vanquished George W. Bush, he has now given us: a military mess in Iraq complete with the deployment of U.S. troops and a mission that is probably unachievable; the continuing disintegration of Afghanistan and its reversion to a jihadist safe haven; an economy that is shrinking significantly and probably is dipping back into recession; a defense and intelligence apparatus that is abusing its powers and the trust of the American people in ways that are not obviously related to defeating terrorist plots; millions without health insurance; millions out of work; corruption in our public institutions, ranging from the IRS to our universities; a self-aggrandizing political elite that is busy enriching itself through the vulgar exploitation of political connections while incomes for ordinary Americans stagnate or decline; etc. There has been a great deal of excitement, but if you voted for Obama because you were angry about the wars, the surveillance state, and the economy, things aren’t looking any better at all.
[Kevin Williamson’s book “The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome: How Going Broke Will Leave America Richer, Happier, and More Secure” is available at Amazon]
The most boring president of the modern era probably was Dwight Eisenhower, whose administration was marked by relative peace, prosperity, and confidence in the effectiveness and integrity of our institutions. The most boring president ever surely was Calvin Coolidge, who pinched pennies and kept at his plow, more or less leaving the country free to go about its own business, which turned out to be an excellent economic program. Our most exciting recent presidents? John Kennedy, who was privately corrupt and publicly inept; Richard Nixon, who was privately corrupt and publicly corrupt; Bill Clinton, who combined the worst features of Kennedy and Nixon, adding a distasteful dose of sanctimony to the mix…(read more)
“In a radio address to the nation, President Franklin Roosevelt urged Americans to tell him their troubles. Please do not tell me yours. Tell them to your spouse, friends, clergy — not to a politician…”
All modern presidents of both parties have been too much with us. Talking incessantly, they have put politics unhealthily at the center of America’s consciousness. Promising promiscuously, they have exaggerated government’s proper scope and actual competence, making the public perpetually disappointed and surly. Inflating executive power, they have severed it from constitutional constraints. So, sensible voters might embrace someone who announced his 2016 candidacy this way:
“I am ambling — running suggests unseemly ardor — for president. It is axiomatic that anyone who nowadays will do what is necessary in order to become president thereby reveals character traits, including delusions of adequacy and obsessive compulsive disorder, that should disqualify him or her from proximity to powers concentrated in the executive branch. Therefore, my campaign will initially consist of driving around the Obnoxiously Entitled Four — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — trying to interest their 3.8 percent of America’s population in a minimalist president.
“Candidates are constantly asked, ‘Where will you take the country?’ My answer is: ‘Nowhere.’ The country is not a parcel to be ‘taken’ anywhere. It is the spontaneous order of 316 million people making billions of daily decisions, cooperatively contracting together, moving the country in gloriously unplanned directions.
“To another inane question, ‘How will you create jobs?,’ my answer will be: ‘I won’t.’ Other than by doing whatever the chief executive can to reduce the regulatory state’s impediments to industriousness. I will administer no major economic regulations — those with $100 million economic impacts — that Congress has not voted on. Legislators should be explicitly complicit in burdens they mandate…(read more) The Washington Post
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.
–George F. Will writes a twice-weekly column on politics and domestic and foreign affairs. He began his column with The Post in 1974, and he received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1977. He is also a contributor to FOX News’ daytime and primetime programming.