Thoughts on President’s Day

A lot of thought and consternation has been invested in recent weeks on the Office of the President of the United States.  We’ve made a difficult transition from a president who was, by any reasonable assessment, a very liberal Democrat to one who is, by any reasonable assessment, a politically untethered businessman with only tangential ties to the Republicans.

In my mind, the Executive has become a too powerful branch of our government.  Throughout our history, there have been times when one branch of government seemed to ascend while another branch descended in influence.  It took some time for the Judiciary, for instance, to grow into a branch of equal stature with the Executive and Legislative.  Much of that growth can be credited to John Marshall, the first great Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who took on Thomas Jefferson and established the precedent of judicial review.

There have been powerful presidents, to be sure, though powerful and great aren’t synonymous.  Washington was a powerful and great president, and perhaps his greatest act was stepping down from the pinnacle of power when many would have been happy to set him on a throne.  Jefferson had his moments, especially his grandiose acquisition of Louisiana.  Madison is often overlooked as an accomplished president, leading the nation through a war that proved truly a second birth, when it was not at all certain that we would prove ourselves as a sovereign state and many in England were salivating at the prospect of regaining much of North America that had been lost.  Jackson was a powerful president, though not a great man in my mind.  I cannot get beyond his treatment of the native peoples.  Lincoln, by any measure, was a powerful and great president and perhaps the greatest man to have held our highest office.  He served in extraordinary times, and assumed extraordinary powers, never giving a second thought to overpowering the legislature and the courts in his effort to save the Union.

We have had weak presidents, as well.  From the time Jackson left office until the Civil War, the government was dominated by the Legislative branch.  Names like Calhoun, Webster, Clay and Douglas were giants on the stage of government affairs, while presidents like Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan barely made a dent in the national consciousness.  After Lincoln and the Civil War, during Reconstruction, the pendulum swung again to Congress when weak presidents encumbered by scandals occupied the White House.

The first half of the twentieth century witnessed an ever-rising ascendency of the Executive branch.  From Teddy Roosevelt, through Wilson and FDR, national and international crises demanded strong leadership from personalities who could mold the political will to their whim with skill and steadfastness.  The Judicial branch exerted itself again beginning in the 1950s, with rulings intended to transform society according to the more progressive outlook of Chief Justices like Warren and Burger.  Few legislators could resist the presidential charms of Kennedy or the bulldozing “Johnson treatment” that resulted in more socially upheaving policies, growth in government, and the United States’ involvement in affairs far and wide.

A peculiar time of bi-partisanship seemed to take hold in Washington during the years when Ronald Reagan was president and Tip O’Neill Speaker of the House.  These two, though world’s apart politically, seemed true statesmen willing to hammer out policy.  After the disaster of Watergate and the weak administrations of Ford and Carter, one would have thought the Legislative branch was due for decades of domination.  Then Reagan entered the stage and the presidency recovered, helped along by the deft handling by Reagan and Bush of the downfall of the Soviet Union.

The years since have been muddled, it seems.  Our presidents have been mediocre or worse, but Congress has failed to ascend, mired in political partisanship worse than many can recall in generations.  Obama, when he could not get his way by way of Congress, simply issued Executive Orders to impose his will.  Members of the Executive branch, such as Attorney General Eric Holder and IRS head Louise Lerner, repeatedly shrugged off demands from Congressional investigating committees looking into questionable actions of the administration, such as fast and furious and the VA and IRS scandals.  Congress, more interested in exerting partisan politics than defending its own interests against an encroaching Executive, continues to lose ground.  Trump continues the avalanche of Executive Orders, seeming to expect to govern by sheer will.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the years ahead.

Be Christ for all.  Bring Christ to all.  See Christ in all.

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