Tuesday, November 20, 2001

Since September 11, most Americans consistently 90 percent have given President Bush high marks for the job he has done. But what also deserves praise is the office he holds, the presidency itself.

The pollsters don’t ask such speculative questions as where we might be today if we had no presidency (or even whether we would exist). But especially at a time like this, when the nation is at war, we can see how wise the Framers of the Constitution were in creating the office.

The late-18th-century history is familiar: The government that was organized under the Articles of Confederation lacked an executive. Congress had tried to administer the government and handle foreign affairs. It hadn’t done very well. (Low job-approval ratings, you could say.) The Framers who met in Philadelphia to write a new charter for governing had as one of their main goals the fashioning of an executive who could assume those critical tasks. The presidency is what they gave us.

The Framers understood that there was such a thing as “the executive power” (different from the legislative and judicial powers), and they vested that power in a single person, the president. They rejected the weakening of the executive that surely would have occurred had they instead vested the power an option they considered in a plurality.

In Article II, Section II, the Framers spelled out the president’s powers and duties. The very first is this: “The president shall be commander in chief of the Army and Navy of the United States.” An archaic but suddenly on-point section of Article IV says the United States “shall protect” every state “against invasion.” Guess who gets to enforce that obscure provision? Our commander in chief.

Plainly, the Framers saw the president as the most critical figure in the government when the life of the country is at stake.

Which necessarily makes the president the most critical figure in the government, period.

Significantly, the president is the only officer (along with the vice president) who is elected by a national vote. And the only officer whose oath is spelled out in the Constitution. The oath demands that the president “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” No other federal oath of office obligates the oath-taker so sweepingly.

It isn’t just the authority to command the troops that equips a president to engage an enemy. In Article II, the Framers also made the president our chief diplomat, charged him with enforcing the laws, and authorized him to seek “necessary and expedient” legislation.

Recognizing his unique place within the constitutional order, they also directed the president to give Congress “information on the state of the union.”

Since September 11, we have seen a war president in full constitutional jacket. Mr. Bush has recommended legislation to counter terrorism, frozen assets of terrorist groups, investigated the attacks of September 11, and prepared for very likely even prevented new ones. He has worked the diplomatic channels worldwide to gain support for a protracted war effort. And, of course, he has commanded the troops.

Early on, Mr. Bush made a nationally televised State of the Union speech in which he explained what is at stake in the war (in a word: freedom) and why it is we must prevail. The Framers didn’t envision the rhetorical presidency we so often associate with our presidents. But, properly used, the bully pulpit can assist a president in executing his office. And Mr. Bush has made several powerful speeches besides the one to Congress, all of them designed to help prosecute the war.

The Framers knew that the presidency would be ascendant in times of war. It has been before: Consider the Civil War, the two world wars, much of the Cold War, and even the brief Gulf war. It now is again.

True, how we assess a particular war presidency will depend on who the war president was, on his judgment and character. We have been blessed with many able war presidents, and Mr. Bush, so far, has risen to the occasion. But it matters, too, that Mr. Bush is equipped to do battle as he is, that the Framers clothed him with authority sufficient to do the job.

The war in which we are engaged is stimulating new appreciation for our system of government, most notably the separation of political and religious spheres on which it is based and which Osama bin Laden and his co-religionists completely reject. At this time of sober reflection, we also should be grateful for the presidency, an office especially designed for freedom’s defense.

Terry Eastland is publisher of the Weekly Standard.

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