- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2008

OP-ED:

This November, voters face a momentous decision. They can contribute to a cause larger than themselves, ushering in an era of national greatness and sacrifice, by electing John McCain their president. Or they can calm the oceans and heal the planet by voting for Barack Obama - change we can believe in.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask the candidates themselves. Upon clinching the Democratic nomination, Mr. Obama vowed his election would be “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” Mr. McCain’s campaign Web site features a section called “A cause greater,” in which visitors can donate to a variety of worthy charities - and Mr. McCain’s own candidacy. The Republicans’ presumptive nominee praises Teddy Roosevelt for inventing “the modern presidency by liberally interpreting the constitutional authority of the office to redress the imbalance of power between the executive and legislative branches that had tilted decisively toward Congress.”

Are you skeptical of these grandiose claims? Perhaps looking for a president with a more modest view of his office’s potential, a Grover Cleveland or Calvin Coolidge instead of another Roosevelt? Well, you may be out of luck when it comes to the major-party candidates this year, but Gene Healy has a book for you. The senior editor of the libertarian Cato Institute tracks the rise of the omnipotent chief executive in “The Cult of the Presidency.”

Mr. Healy documents that while an expansive view of the presidency was not anticipated by the Founding Fathers, neither is it unique to this campaign season. Since at least the Progressive era, presidents have been judged by how creatively they can exceed the constitutional powers of their office. The pattern continued until today, when the president is our consoler-in-chief, guardian of the economy, and a “decider” who can unilaterally decide when we are at war and when we are (all too rarely) at peace.

Indeed, the American people love an outsized president. Liberals lionize Woodrow Wilson and FDR despite the massive violations of civil liberties that often accompanied their progressive economic reforms. After Republicans started winning more presidential elections than Democrats, conservatives got into the act. “Many conservatives,” New Right founding father Paul Weyrich once lamented, “are monarchists at heart.”

So are vast swathes of the electorate without any ideological commitments. Attend a presidential candidate’s townhall meeting and you will discover no problem is too great or too small for the next chief executive to solve. Everything from personal economic misfortunes - “When somebody hurts, government has got to move” - to ending tyranny in our world is on the agenda.

During a 1992 presidential debate, Mr. Healy recalls, one fellow got up to ask the three major candidates, “‘How can we, as symbolically the children of the future president, expect … you to meet our needs, the needs in housing and in crime and you name it?’” You name it.

Mr. Healy chronicles the expansion of presidential power without sparing any party or faction. He is predictably tough on the current administration’s assertions of almost unlimited power to wage the war on terrorism. But he is not hyperbolic: The author acknowledges that President Bush has not in practice exercised many of the powers he and his lawyers have claimed in theory. Mr. Healy acknowledges that nothing the Bush administration has done domestically even comes close to the Palmer raids or the internment of Japanese Americans.

Which is not to say that he thinks the Bush administration’s interpretations of presidential power are benign. Mr. Healy makes the case that too much unchecked power in the hands of any one branch of government is dangerous, ineffective, and inimical to American constitutional traditions.

More provocatively, he argues that the country’s high hopes for the president often doom him to failure: A president cannot possibly succeed at everything now expected of the office. These high, even audacious hopes are more often than not dashed. This explains why grand visions of the presidency nevertheless coincide with increased public cynicism about politics and government.

Perhaps the same can also be said of our country’s political polarization. Millions of Americans look to the presidential election to validate their cultural identity and values, feeling utterly demoralized when the opposition party gets to move into the White House.

But the next president won’t be able to move mountains, heal the sick or nourish the nation’s soul. Mr. Healy’s book may not lead to a reappraisal of presidential power, but it could save gullible voters some disappointment.

W. James Antle III is associate editor of the American Spectator.