Our school has a Constitution Day celebration every Sept. 17. I’ve given a brief speech for our 2007, 2008, and 2009 ceremonies. I thought that I would post them here, too. This was the one that I gave today:
Our past three presidents have inspired both intense devotion from their admirers and intense condemnation from their detractors. Compare, for example, the joyous celebrations in Chicago’s Grant Park after President Obama’s election with the fiery rhetoric of his critics. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have had their presidencies and their policies called illegitimate, immoral, illegal, dishonest, and disgraceful by their critics, while they have enjoyed praise from their supporters that often reaches dizzying heights.
This has certainly been the case before in our history. Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, almost always ranked as our nation’s greatest chief executives, heard criticisms that may surprise us when we read them today. But to have such polarization around three presidents in a row suggests that historian Andrew Bacevich’s description of the presidency in the modern period is quite accurate. Since the election of John F. Kennedy, he says,
the occupant of the White House has become a combination of demigod, father figure and, inevitably, the betrayer of inflated hopes. Pope. Pop star. Scold. Scapegoat. Crisis manager. Commander in Chief. Agenda settler. Moral philosopher. Interpreter of the nation’s charisma. Object of veneration. And the butt of jokes. All rolled into one.
On Constitution Day, though, it’s worth taking a look at the basis for the presidency. Article II of our Constitution, which describes the presidency, is fairly short, especially in comparison to the description of Congress in Article I, where the major powers of the federal government are discussed. The duties and powers of the president are vitally important, but they are also relatively few: acting as commander in chief of the armed forces, running the executive branch, granting pardons, making treaties, and appointing officials and Supreme Court justices. Congress, rather than the president, seems to be the star of the Constitution.
The Federalist Papers that address the presidency also give the impression that the president, while powerful, would not be the center of attention. Alexander Hamilton famously argued for “energy in the executive” in Federalist Paper No. 70, but at the same time he tried to persuade his readers that this president would not be another King George III.
Now, my points here are not a call to return to a more innocent age, where the balance between the branches of government was perfect. Whatever age we chose, the inhabitants would probably be surprised that we considered their time so innocent. Our powerful presidency reflects that times have changed since the 1700s. America is a world power with a complex economy, and in many ways the more powerful presidency has probably been a good thing.
But some perspective from our history is valuable, too. Knowing the intentions of the people who put together our system of government helps us to understand how this system plays out today. And so I think that it’s good to remember two things.
First, the president is the head of just one of three branches of the federal government. We’ve all learned this at some point, even if many of us forget. No matter what other powers Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama have, they can’t make laws and they can’t settle disputes over laws. The Constitution separates these powers between three branches. And yet very few people vote when it’s not a presidential election. Andrew Bacevich, who I mentioned before, warns us that too much focus on presidential elections diminishes the importance of the other branches of government. We ought to remind ourselves of the roles of the other branches of government and understand how they impact our lives.
Second, the federal government is only one layer of authority provided for in the Constitution. State and local governments affect our lives in many ways that the president never can.
So, on Constitution Day, it’s worth remembering that while the American presidency ranks among the most powerful offices in the world, politics and government are about much than the heroes or villains, sinners or saints, that have occupied the White House. It’s something that their most devoted supporters and their loudest critics should think about too.