The Imperial Mount Rushmore

Though it’s been a few weeks since it appeared, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Stephen Knott’s excellent piece on whether Woodrow Wilson destroyed the office of the presidency. The clamor about the imperial presidency is on the rise with many commentators (such as George Will) and Knott’s article gives us a better understanding of its rise, as well as its implications. Knott describes the “expectations gap” that has arisen due to modern conceptions of the presidency, where we expect the president to heal the planet, rather than work to enact reforms within the institutions of constitutional government.

In response to Professor Knott I would only mention that I think Woodrow Wilson may not even deserve top billing in terms of producing the rise of presidential power. Wilson’s view of presidential leadership certainly has caught on, to the point where candidates of both parties have to show their ability to lead the government. But Wilson’s theory was complimented by two other presidents’ arguments: Theodore Roosevelt’s stewardship theory and FDR’s theory of the president as military commander. Chapter 10 of TR’s Autobiography and FDR’s First Inaugural Address (not to mention his “court packing” Fireside Chat) are more assertive about presidential power than even Wilson was.

Just a taste from FDR’s First Inaugural:

[I]f we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good.…

With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems….

It is to be hoped that the normal balance of Executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us. But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure….

[I]n the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.

Consider if a president such as, say, George W. Bush or Barack Obama had given such a speech after 9/11 or the 2008 Financial Crash!

So Wilson belongs on the list of presidents who transformed the public’s understanding of the presidency, but probably behind the two Roosevelts.

To complete the Imperial Mount Rushmore we would have to find a fourth imperial president. Maybe one from an earlier era who served as inspiration to TR, Wilson, and FDR. I nominate Andrew Jackson because of his transformation of the veto, his ambivalence about enforcing Supreme Court decisions, and his claim that the President was the voice of the people, because he turned the office into a directly popularly-elected one. (LBJ and Nixon would also be defensible nominations.)

Who would grace the Constitutional Mount Rushmore? I submit it would consist of Washington, Taft, Coolidge and Eisenhower. Those of us interested in exploring the foundations of constitutional government, even in the post-industrial era, probably need to study especially the examples of Taft, Coolidge, and Eisenhower more closely.