Thomas Jefferson called the American presidency “a bad edition of the Polish king.” In the intervening two centuries, however, the office has become one that not even the Poles would trade for a Teutonic knight or Lithuanian count.
To elect a president now costs $1 billion, and the time needed ranges from two years to eternity. For all that invested capital, who gets to vote for a candidate who articulates their political views?
On paper, the Democratic Party stands for the working classes; government support for the underprivileged; skepticism about corporate concentrations of power; and a foreign policy that, from Woodrow Wilson, talks about trying to “keep us out of wars.”
Yet, the point can be made that a voter for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2012 will be endorsing corporate bailouts, sweetheart bank deals, unlawful search-and-seizure procedures and the flight plans of drone missiles flying over most countries in the Middle East — if not the Paramus Mall.
The Republicans, meanwhile, make claims of fiscal responsibility, limits on government powers, middle-class values and, abroad, a combination of realpolitik and trade.
Those slogans sound fine on bumper stickers. Except that the last time the voters chose a Republican president, they ended up with several undeclared wars, budget deficits, Orwellian federal agencies that tap phones and read e-mails — and mismanagement of the economy that robbed middle-class Americans of homes and equity.
Another reason a billion-dollar election yields up hundred-dollar candidates is because, the presidency has also become a bad edition of daytime television.
POLITICO regularly runs President Barack Obama’s daily schedule, which often goes something like this: brief morning conversation with aides in the Oval Office on the daily crisis; flight to some swing state, often Ohio, North Carolina or Colorado; speech to an adoring audience, featuring soccer moms or the sympathetic unemployed; uptown dinner with campaign contributors, all of whom want to meet George Clooney.
Who can run a serious government in between such a peripatetic schedule? Air Force One has been used, on average, every other day of the Obama presidency. In four years as president, Abraham Lincoln never even went to New York City. Theodore Roosevelt was the first president to go to a foreign country; Obama has been to 32.
On the Republican side, Mitt Romney has to work harder for his sound bites, but he reminds me of those TV anchormen who interrupt “Judge Judy” to announce: “New revelations on the Obama deficit fraud. More at 6.” The screen freezes to an image of an anchorman with perfect teeth and hair — who looks just like Romney.
One reason this campaign has descended into a game show (“Who Wants to Be a President?”) is because the Original Intenters at the 1787 Constitutional Convention disagreed about the office of the chief executive.
Alexander Hamilton and John Adams wanted the head of state to have the aura of a European monarch, if not lifetime tenure or hereditary succession. Benjamin Franklin and others preferred the Swiss model — under which the office of the chief executive would be made up of a rotating federal council, so no one person would become an elected monarch.
At early State of the Union addresses, members of Congress debated passionately about whether they needed to stand up when the president entered the chamber — fearful that it would show undue reverence for just another public official.
Imagine telling those early members of Congress that the president now travels abroad with an entourage that reportedly includes “500 staff, 200 Secret Service agents, six doctors, personal chefs and the president’s own food and water, 35 vehicles, four speechwriters, 12 teleprompters and 15 sniffer dogs,” according to factchecker.org.
One reason that Obama spends so many of his days in the vacuous rounds of a British monarch — greeting the Chicago Bears, taking Bo to the mall — is because he has little chance to implement his legislative agenda, at least while Republicans control the House.
Because the Constitution is mute on the subject of political parties, no provision was made in government for a prime minister. Some countries, like France, have a president and a prime minister. But the U.S. combines the duties of the two in one position — though the president often lacks a majority of his party in one or both houses of Congress, leading to stalemates.
About all Obama can now do in Congress is to support bills (see the “Buffett rule” tax plan) that he knows will be turned down, then complain that the GOP majority is coddling billionaires.
Instead of being the most powerful man in the world, the U.S. president has become little more than a talk show host, not unlike Dr. Phil — obliged to script a daily program that has tragedy (Trayvon Martin), concern (meeting with autoworkers), music (the slow jam) and something upbeat (solar energy factory tour).
If electing a president costs $1 billion and takes up all of our time, maybe the solution isn’t yet another ratings sweep between two teleprompted anchors but to change the office?
The Swiss model, which so enticed Franklin and Jefferson, runs like this: The major political parties in the Senate and House elect, according to their political strength, the members of a seven-member federal council. This body, in turn, selects the main Cabinet jobs.
Each year, one member of the council serves as the president — to greet foreign leaders and speak for Switzerland in a crisis. The real chief executive, however, is the entire federal council, not one person. In recent years, the president has often been a woman.
by Matthew Stevenson
republished from NewGeography.com, with permission
General Stanley McChrystal may be the first commanding general in the history of warfare to be relieved of his command because he groaned over the receipt of an email from an ambassador, or because one of his aides whispered to a Rolling Stone reporter that the president had looked “intimidated” in a meeting with the military brass.
In terms of carrying out strategy, it has been stated that the president had no military complaints about the heavy metal general, who was walking the impossibly thin red line between a general war in Afghanistan and a campaign waged only with assassinations and drone missiles.
Just a month before his firing, McChrystal successfully packaged a tour of the White House and Capitol Hill for President Hamid Karzai. In earlier media campaigns—notably when the president flew into Kabul in the dead of night to lecture a pajama-clad Karzi over corruption—the Afghan president was deemed unworthy of an American war effort.
However briefly, McChrystal had succeeded in integrating the Afghan government into the order of battle. So why was he sacked for humming a few bars of Satisfaction in the presence of a rock reporter?
No doubt McChrystal had his enemies within the bureaucracy, including the ubiquitous ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, former general Karl W. Eikenberry. Along with these two add in a legion of jealous Army politicos, all of whom would love to wear combat fatigues to a presidential photo-op.
In relieving General McChrystal, perhaps as part of a search for his mojo, President Obama joins a long line of presidents who never figured out how to command their commanders. Here’s a brief summary of some of the more complicated relationships between American presidents and their field generals:
President Lincoln Often praised for his habits of command in the Civil War, he nevertheless promoted, endorsed, and endured the incompetence of such generals as McClellan, Meade, Burnside, Pope, and Rosecrans before winning the war with Grant and Sherman, both of whom would horrify a Senate confirmation hearing, let alone the editors of Rolling Stone.
Grant was a drunk who killed thousands at Shiloh and Spotsylvania, and Sherman once celebrated the drowning of a boatload of reporters, pointing out that maybe their “heavy thoughts” had taken them to the bottom. He also burned Atlanta. Both understood how to win modern wars.