Presidential Imperialism

F.H Buckley’s The Once and Future King is a worthy contribution to the great discourse on liberty and power

Books US Politics
Oval Office or throne room? The Constitution's framers would be shocked by the power of present-day presidents like Barack Obama (photo: White House Press Office)

On November 6, 2013 at an event in Dallas, Texas, Barack Obama was noticeably glib about the exuberant wave that delivered him to his presidency in 2008. “Sometimes I worry because everybody had such a fun experience in ’08, at least that’s how it seemed in retrospect. And ‘Yes, we can,’ and the slogans and the posters, etcetera . . . sometimes I worry that people forget change in this country has always been hard.” This is an iteration of a familiar pattern: charismatic leader is elected on a mystical tuft of a platform promising transformative progress. His electoral base is a precariously sewn patchwork quilt of otherwise socio-economically incompatible voters: in Obama’s case, white elites dazzled by his intellectual chops and idealism, Hispanics swayed by his promises of immigration reforms, and African-Americans justly enthused by the symbolic import of a black president. Shortly after the shimmering dust settled, though, the work at hand exposed fatal cracks in the firmament. Those cracks are the sticky hurdles of democracy, which is quite incompatible with the sort of presidential imperialism that reached its zenith with Obama.

It is precisely this combination of media-driven celebrity, prestigious office and strength in arms exemplified by the Obama presidency that F.H. Buckley, a Canadian-born American law professor, claims corrodes liberty in his forcefully argued new book, The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America. Buckley suggests that the contemporary phenomenon of an all-powerful president is symptomatic of a more pervasive Anglo-American phenomenon. Obama’s presidency is a culmination of the structure of American government itself, not a deviation from its constitution.

To this end, Buckley identifies the structural factors endemic to the current regime in America, which he calls crown government: the rule of an all-powerful president who can make and unmake laws by executive dictat, do what he wants and not do what he doesn’t want (“George III would envy that”). He notes that political power has also become centralised in the executive branch in Britain and Canada, but to a lesser degree and with greater safeguards. America’s raison d’être was formed in rebellion against the rule of one king, and yet today is governed by what founding father George Mason would deem an “elective monarchy”.

Buckley attributes the rise of crown government to several factors: the tendency of power to flow from larger, disorganised groups towards single actors; the rise of the modern bureaucratic state; and the media’s depiction of the executive as celebrities — all unforeseen by the framers of the Constitution, who agreed in Article II, Section 1 that “the executive Power shall be vested in a President.”

Buckley’s book is long on anecdotes of presidential overreach from Nixon and Reagan to Bush Jr. and Sr., but his most biting words are reserved for Obama, whom he surely views as the culmination of crown government in America. He eviscerates Obama’s TARP bailout program, in which Congress authorised billions to be spent on “financial institutions” — in the end, $80 billion was actually used to bail out carmakers GM and Chrysler.

Obama’s supporters,  and to a less uniform extent the media — granted him a pass on this, evoking the bewitchment, pragmatic and moral stumbling that Raymond Aron described as “the opium of intellectuals” — progressive ideologies.

Instead of the current elective monarchy headed by a perversely idolised President, Buckley prefers the Westminster model of government in which the prestige of the head of state is separated from the heft of the head of government: “Freedom is more secure when the person with power is a jug-eared prince.” Indeed, it is difficult for a prime minister to preserve his charismatic aura whilst fighting backbenchers from the pit of the Commons or on the hustings. In America, conversely, “the imperial style wears better. Presidents do not appear before Congress to face the brickbats thrown at prime ministers in Parliament. Instead, they appear once a year to deliver the quasi-regal State of the Union address.” Quite unlike parliamentary prime ministers, American presidents are usually state governors, unruly senators, and outsiders who run their campaigns as self-appointed “mavericks” bent on “cleaning up Washington”. They arrive in office as elected redeemers, nothing like prime ministers who are leaders of the pack, having already completed a fair amount of horse-trading in exchange for the energetic support of their party.

One wonders whether going through the weekly ordeal of Prime Minister’s Questions, though, waters down executive power, or whether it is mostly a theatrical exercise. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in Canada prompts the cynical view. As Buckley notes, the Prime Minister’s Office is the real site of political action, cabinet meetings nowadays briefings on party lines rather than negotiations. More telling, though, is the Harper government’s informal modus operandi evidenced through recent controversies. It seemingly attempted to circumvent the law by allotting three places on the Supreme Court bench to Québécois in order to appoint a Conservative Party-friendly judge. It then leaked a nasty allegation that the Chief Justice broke constitutional protocol when her office called the prime minister’s suggesting his proposed candidates might be constitutionally invalid. Finally, a Harper henchman secretly offered to pay off a senator’s disputed expenses before they reached the light of day.

There has been, over the last year, a steady murmuring among the American conservative chattering classes that Obama ought to be impeached. The reasons given range from abandoning US allies abroad to the alleged backdoor passage of the Obamacare and DREAM Acts. And Buckley is all for impeachment, echoing Monroe’s sentiment that impeachment is “the main spring of the great machine of government . . . If preserved in full vigor and exercised with perfect integrity, every branch will perform its duty.” Tongue only partly in cheek, Buckley proposes that Congress should “impeach and remove presidents often: when their policies fail, when they are touched with scandal, or for no reason, just for the spirit of the thing.” Buckley’s critique falls in a class above such calls, focusing as he does on broader institutional developments.

In 2011, when the congressional supercommittee failed to pass a budget, the End of History political scientist Francis Fukuyama denounced republican government for its weakness as evidenced by its inability to pass logical budgets: “The system is deliberately engineered to put obstacles in the way of decisive government, which in turn is the result of a political culture strongly suspicious of centralised power.” He praised the British system of passing budgets for its efficacy, “with fewer opportunities to cast vetoes”. To some extent, Fukuyama and Buckley’s critiques differ only in shifting the blame to different parts of the political apparatus: congressional decline and executive ascent clearly occur in tandem.

Indeed, the annals are scribbled with Americans longingly gazing at Britain for ways out of its political predicaments. Buckley’s Anglophilia is at full froth in this book, which includes a lovingly detailed description of a coronation at Westminister Abbey. His point is that reverence for a functionally powerless head of state in Westminster democracies is balanced by irreverence for heads of government. The real modern political tyrants are demagogues and bureaucrats. The Once and Future King is a worthy contribution to the great discourse on liberty and power which has existed and will continue to exist between the great nations on opposite sides of the Atlantic. And yet we ought to also keep in mind the great critic of American democracy Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation: “The Americans are much more addicted to the use of general ideas than the English, and entertain a much greater relish for them . . . There is not a mediocre scribbler who does not try his hand at discovering truths applicable to a great kingdom, and who is very ill pleased with himself if he does not succeed in compressing the human race into the compass of an article.”