Down With the Presidency! A President's Day Message

Today, President’s Day, is the most ridiculous and anti-liberty holiday of the year. Americans are asked to revere the office of president today when they should be fearing it and opposing it with every fiber of their being. The U.S. presidency is by far the greatest threat to liberty for Americans today — far greater than terrorism. And by "fearing the presidency," I don’t mean just the current president, Barack Obama.

One of the first things I tell my American history students is that every dictatorship throughout all of history was an executive branch dictatorship. The Roman Senate fell by giving its powers to the Caesars, and the U.S. Congress is following in that path by ceding its power to the president. Conversely, all the free countries in human history have had legislatures dominate and tame the executive branch.

As if to confirm the fact that the presidency is becoming an out-of-control dictatorship, the White House spokesmen Dan Pfeiffer and Rahm Emmanuel told the New York Times this past weekend that if Congress won’t pass their agenda they’ll enact it by dictatorial decree. "The challenges we had to address in 2009 ensured that the center of action would be in Congress," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer told the Times in Saturday’s news dump. "In 2010, executive actions will also play a key role in advancing the agenda."

But the role of the president under the U.S. Constitution is not to make laws. It is simply to execute the laws passed by Congress. Article I, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution begins: "All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States." Since the Constitution mandates that "all" law-making powers reside in the Congress, none are left for the president. The president’s job is that “he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed” under Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution. Constitutionally speaking, the president was designed by the founders to be nothing more than the errand-boy of Congress.

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Obama won’t be the first to take us from the "rule of law" to "rule by one man." The Bush and Clinton administrations paved the way for unconstitutional executive orders. Clinton advisor Paul Begala told the New York Times of Clinton’s executive orders: "Stroke of the pen. Law of the Land. Kinda cool."

President Bush and his neo-conservative theoreticians were even worse, as they posited the idea that the president was above all law. Former Bush Assistant Attorney General John Yoo’s recent book Crisis and Command contends presidential powers are unlimited by any law: "The executive was, rather, the servant of necessity, bound to act in accordance with, in the absence of, or in extraordinary emergencies, in defense of the republic, even contrary to regularly constituted law."

This is the authoritarian personality long championed by both much of the Democratic leadership on the "left" and all of the neo-conservative Republicans on the "right." Neo-conservatives like John Yoo explicitly endorse the idea of an omnipotent presidency that erases all the rights of the people. In his wordy and overpriced book, Crisis and Command, John Yoo claims the Constitution created a president with unlimited powers. The Constitution of the founders, Yoo wrote, "did not carefully limit the executive power, as [it] did with the legislative, because they understood that they could not see the future."

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If the president has unlimited power, then he can take away the rights of the people to be free from detention without trial, torture, etc. That’s why Yoo fails to mention the natural law or the inalienable rights of man as "endowed by their Creator" in his book. The whole concept of individual rights is only discussed in the context of privileges that the president can suspend when he deems it necessary. And forget about any role God has on those rights. God makes no appearance in Yoo’s Crisis and Command, not even a cameo.

Yoo mentions Enlightenment writers such as Locke, Montesquieu and Blackstone in Crisis and Command, but he acts as if they had nothing to say about individual rights or God. After all, if you have an unlimited executive, you can’t have inalienable rights. An all-powerful president can’t tolerate an all-powerful God giving out inalienable rights to everyone willy-nilly. The all-powerful presidency is a jealous god. The real lesson of the Enlightenment era, Yoo implies, is a clarion call for the same old unlimited executive power that has existed in every dictatorship in most of the governments throughout world history.

This is what the modern presidency has become, a new Caesar whose powers are without limit.

Unfortunately the national leadership of the Republican Party has bought wholly into Yoo’s argument that government gives out rights instead of God, and that government ought not to "give" rights to people we don’t like. One recent example is Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, who ran a close January 19 election to succeed Ted Kennedy in the U.S. Senate. Brown stated in a television commercial in the week before the election that "Some people believe our Constitution exists to grant rights to terrorists who want to harm us. I disagree. Our laws are meant to protect this nation, not our enemies. As your senator, I will never compromise our nation’s security." The clear implication of Brown’s campaign ad is that government gives out rights — not God — and that government shouldn’t give them out to people it doesn’t like.

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When I was in college, I joined the anti-communist John Birch Society because I feared that the Soviet dictators would bring their totalitarianism to America. Under Soviet rule, Brezhnev and Gorbachev could and did "disappear" anyone they didn’t like into a wide-ranging secret prison network of gulags where the person would be outside of law. Those consigned to the gulags would have no right to a trial and could even be detained indefinitely without charges. The imprisoned could be tortured at will, or even killed by their government tormentors. Many of those tortured were innocent. That frightened me, but I never would have guessed then that President Bush had done all of those things to America and its citizens (see the links on each of the Soviet atrocities above for proof). It’s true that the average American Fox-servative remains ignorant of these facts, because we won’t hear the details of tortured innocents like Maher Arar, Khalid el-Masri, Omar Deghayes or the Tipton Three on the Fox News Channel. Nor will the Fox News Network tell its audience that the Obama administration has openly ratified all of these Bush-era attacks on the Bill of Rights except for the torture. Fox-servatives love the dictatorial state; they just wish it were run by the party of Pompey instead of the party of Caesar.

All of the really bad ideas that the federal government initiated throughout our nation’s history originated with the office of president: This includes most of the wars as well as warrantless surveillance, detention without trial, torture and all of the socialist legislation since the New Deal. Each was only adopted by the president pushing Congress, or more recently, by a president ignoring Congress altogether.

The presidency itself needs to be knocked down from its perch. The only thing that will save the American republic is a renewed focus upon the Congress and cutting down the presidency to size. The founding fathers designed the legislature — Congress — to be the dominant branch of a very small federal government. That’s the lesson of history that anyone who takes the care to read the founding documents learns. When Representative Ron Paul ran for president in 2008, he was really running for a lower office — constitutionally speaking — than the congressional position he already had.

The only appropriate celebrations of President’s Day these days involve spitting, ridicule and obscene gestures.