Supreme Warlord of the Earth

It’s time to rein in the imperial U.S. presidency


| September-October 2008



Imperial Presidency

image by Stephen Kroninger

This article is part of a package on the expanding power of the US presidency. To read editor in chief David Schimke’s interview with author and presidential power critic Dana D. Nelson, read “ Presidential Power to the People .”

“I’m not a preacher,” Republican presidential candidate Phil Gramm snarled to religious right activists in 1995 when they urged him to run a campaign stressing moral themes. Several months later, despite Gramm’s fund-raising prowess, the Texas conservative finished a desultory fifth place in the Iowa caucuses and quickly dropped out of the race. Since then, few candidates have made Gramm’s mistake. Serious contenders for the office recognize that the role and scope of the modern presidency cannot be so narrowly confined. Today’s candidates are running enthusiastically for national preacher—and much else besides.

In the revival tent atmosphere of Barack Obama’s campaign, the preferred hosanna of hope is “Yes we can!” We can, the Democratic candidate promises, not only create “a new kind of politics” but also “transform this country,” “change the world,” and even “create a Kingdom right here on earth.” With the presidency, all things are possible.

Even though Republican nominee John McCain tends to eschew rainbows and uplift in favor of the grim satisfaction that comes from serving a “cause greater than self-interest,” he too sees the presidency as a font of miracles and the wellspring of national redemption. A president who wants to achieve greatness, McCain suggests, should emulate Teddy Roosevelt, who “liberally interpreted the constitutional authority of the office” and “nourished the soul of a great nation.” President George W. Bush, when he was passing the GOP torch to his former rival in March, declared that the Arizona senator “will bring determination to defeat an enemy and a heart big enough to love those who hurt.”

The chief executive of the United States is no longer a mere constitutional officer charged with faithful execution of the laws. He is a soul nourisher, a hope giver, a living American talisman against hurricanes, terrorism, economic downturns, and spiritual malaise. He—or she—is the one who answers the phone at 3 a.m. to keep our children safe from harm. The modern president is America’s shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host. He’s also the Supreme Warlord of the Earth.

This messianic campaign rhetoric merely reflects what the office has evolved into after decades of public clamoring. The vision of the president as national guardian and spiritual redeemer is so ubiquitous that it goes virtually unnoticed. Americans, left, right, and other, think of the “commander in chief” as a superhero, responsible for swooping to the rescue when danger strikes. And with great responsibility comes great power.

Gary Mead
10/12/2008 9:41:21 AM

It has been said that we get the kind of leaders we deserve. As Gene Healy points out, we have been demanding that the president do more and more, so we effectively have an elected king. How long is it before we make it an official monarchy? Not long if we continue on this path. Hero worship seems to be inherent in human societies. Examples include Caesar, Jesus, Muhammed, Washington, Lenin, Mao, Reagan, and now Obama. The framers of the U.S. Constitution were correct, we need to restrain this impulse, and stop demanding an imperial presidency. All people make mistakes, and people with nearly unlimited power make mistakes that hurt multitudes of people.