The president and the common good

A happy day today, across the country and around the world, with the inauguration of Barack Obama.

What moves me most about the man is his clear vision of the common good. In every speech, in every setting, he says clearly that both the work and the benefits must be shared by all. It’s a message all too rarely heard from the highest office in the land, and it leads me to think about why.

I think it has to do with our notion of a leader. The role of the president was cribbed from the European ideal of the king. In European societies the king—less often the queen—sat at the apex of a hierarchy of power. The monarch’s power included commanding armies, issuing decrees, collecting taxes, and serving as the ceremonial head, the symbol of the collective.

There are other ways to arrange power, other ways to define the leader of a people (more on this in future posts). But the founders, rather than change the definition of the king, chose to balance the powers of the king-president with those of lawmakers and judges. By placing the executive office in a three-way dance with Congress and courts, the framers hoped to ensure that no American presidents would act—or act out—like  European monarchs. The president would hold the same familiar handful of powers, just comparatively less of them.

Notice what this arrangement accomplishes: it places checks on the president’s powers. Notice also what it does not accomplish: it does not change the nature of the powers. Presidents do just about the same things European monarchs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did: lead the military, issue decrees, sit at the apex of a hierarchy of decision making, and serve as the symbol of the nation, the individual star upon whom, rightly or wrongly, the hopes of a people are pinned. It’s the traditional mantle of royalty.

Even though Congress and courts balance these powers with their own, that’s still an awful lot of power for one person to wield—especially now that this nation has become the single most powerful one in the world.

It’s no wonder the office of president has attracted comparatively few public servants. The very definition of the job draws to it people with a hunger for power—power defined as power over others, power wielded at the expense of others. The job attracts megalomaniacs. In other words, we have ourselves and our own political structure to thank for the craziness that emanates from the White House on a business-as-usual day. Specifically, we have the founders to thank because they instituted the presidency as a job modeled on the figure of a monarch.

So it’s doubly momentous that today we see Barack Obama take the oath of office. Momentous in that he has been elected by the people to stand as a symbol of the nation. Our self-image has shifted dramatically since those few decades ago when, as Obama said in his inaugural speech, his father, a black man, could not have been served at a restaurant. The enormity of power residing in the office of presidency reflects back to us, as in a mirror, the depth of change. A presidency less redolent of power would not mark this social change so dramatically.

And momentous too in that it appears a true public servant is now filling the office. On election night last November, moments after Barack Obama’s victory speech, his most trusted campaign advisers were interviewed by 60 Minutes in a segment called “Obama’s Inner Circle” (transcript here).

David Axelrod, now senior adviser to the president, said that early on in the campaign they told Obama he would have to find his motivation for this long, hard journey because he didn’t have the usual one: “that pathological drive to be president. You know, so often, what defines presidential candidates is this need to be president, to define themselves. He didn’t have that.” Barack did indeed find his motivation, Axelrod reported; he wanted the presidency because of the power it provided to change the country for the better–“what he could do as president,” in Axelrod’s words.

Against all odds, the office of the presidency has attracted a person whose gaze remains fixed upon the common good. It’s up to all of us to make sure it stays there.

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