Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog



By kgpatia
Gene Healy, a senior editor at the Cato Institute (a non-profit public policy research center whose political philosophy might be most adequately labeled as libertarian) and the editor of “Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything,” has recently come out with a new book, “The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power.” In the book, Healy argues that executive power has vastly expanded in the past few decades due in part to heightened expectations for the office of the presidency and the subsequent actions presidents have taken to meet these expectations. Gene Healy discussed his book at the McCormick Freedom Museum on June 19, 2008.

Healy’s first full length volume is a compelling account of how the powers of the presidency have grown beyond the powers outlined by the Framers of the Constitution—and why they should return to this state. According to Healy, these powers defined by the Framers include “defending the country when attacked, checking Congress when it violates the Constitution, enforcing the law, and little else.” However, as Healy details in his book, over the past several decades, the president has evolved to become “our World Leader, the Protector of the Peace, our Chief Legislator, our Manager of Prosperity, and the Voice of the People.” In the lead up to the 2008 presidential campaign, Healy notes—without a touch of hyperbole—that it seemed as if all of the candidates were “applying for the job of national savior,” citing Mike Huckabee’s pledge to see a “revival of our national soul” and Barack Obama’s “promise of redemption through presidential politics” as examples.

Whether one agrees with Healy’s conclusions about the proper role of presidential power or not, one need not look far in recent public culture to find evidence for his claims of bloated presidential power. Any number of recent acts made by the Bush Administration in the post-9/11 era might qualify as an increase in presidential power. After all, as Healy notes in his book, “Throughout American history, virtually every major advance in executive power has come during a war or warlike crisis.” To name a specific example, however, one might look to the Bush Administration’s decision to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and issue warrantless wiretaps in 2005.

On the Democratic side, it is easy to see—and Healy notes this example as well—the grandiose and all-inclusive nature of Barack Obama’s presidential bid as a boon for increased expectations of the presidency. After all, even if—to quote a popular Obama campaign slogan—“we are the change we have been waiting for,” there is no denying that Obama-supporters certainly have a lot of “hope” for what their candidate will accomplish in office. And according to Healy, Obama’s sparkling charisma and rhetorical flair are not helping restore the presidency to its proper role either. While discussing President Taft—a president best remembered for his portliness—with the audience at the McCormick Freedom Museum, Healy mused to laughter that “I think we would be in a better place if the president was this enormous, awkward figure…the less charisma the better.”

In his book, Healy argues that it is such “forgotten presidents” like Taft, Coolidge, Harding, Arthur, and Hayes that modern presidents should strive to emulate. These men, Healy notes, were content merely to preside, without chasing after what he considers undue power. However, for this restraint, history has granted them a poor reward, for as Healy observes, “Whether they’re conservative or liberal, America’s professors prefer presidents who dream big and attempt great things—even when they leave wreckage in their wake…Today’s president can no longer merely preside.”

Like much current political analysis, the discussion at the museum turned toward the 2008 presidential election. Healy joked that he should have called his book “The Futility of Hope,” referencing the title of Obama’s second book, “The Audacity of Hope.” However, throughout the discussion, Healy insisted that his no-holds-barred book is “Relentlessly cynical about both ends of the political spectrum.” He noted that a lot of the conservative critics who are skeptical about the so-called “cult of Obama” are the same people that made a “flight-suited hero” of Bush in the years after September 11.

Healy emphasized that the “imperial presidency” did not start with President George W. Bush (he details its long history in “The Cult of the Presidency”) and it will not necessarily end with his presidency either. “The problems of presidential power are not going to disappear when President Bush goes back to his ranch to cut brush or whatever he does there,” Healy said, lightening a serious point. Regarding the two presumed nominees of their respective parties, Barack Obama and John McCain, Healy remarked bluntly that he feared that “we are going to get more of the same no matter who becomes president.”

Part of the problem, Healy noted, is the process of becoming president. The arduous, ever-lengthening journey attracts a certain kind of persona—a type of personality, Healy suggests, which might not be best suited to “merely presiding.” Painting the horrors of the campaign trail for the museum audience, Healy wondered “What sort of person wants the job [of president] badly enough to do all that?” Furthermore, once a candidate makes it into office, the problems of an imperial presidency are complicated by what Healy described as an extreme difficulty to get accurate information. This, Healy asserted, is because, as president, people are oftentimes afraid to contradict you.

In terms of solutions to the myriad of problems Healy associates with the “Imperial Presidency,” he is self-admittedly demure. There is no single legislative cure-all, Healy insists. What he dubs as “the American public’s dysfunctional relationship with the presidency” will only change when the American public changes their expectations for the presidency. To start, as Healy notes in his book, those in power should work on eliminating the partisan phenomenon that is “situational constitutionalism,” or as Healy describes it, “the tendency to support enhanced executive power when one’s friends hold the executive branch.”

However, knowing that such changes will likely take years to take affect, Healy cautions in “The Cult of the Presidency” that, “Given the staggering powers and responsibilities that go with the 21st-century presidency, it’s more important then ever before that the person who holds the office is worthy of trust.” Thus, whether you support ‘big’ government or ‘small’ government, Healy’s book raises some important questions about the development of executive power and its ramifications. Like it or not, it seems that a powerful and active executive branch is a phenomenon that is not going away any time soon. Therefore, it would behoove us all to at least give a second thought to our own role in the development of presidential power.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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