A Less-Is-More Presidency? (And Who Ruined It in the First Place?) [with comment by Paul]

A few days ago George Will devoted a column to advocating that a good presidential candidate—and by extension a good president—would be someone who talked less and promised less:

All modern presidents of both parties have been too much with us. Talking incessantly, they have put politics unhealthily at the center of America’s consciousness. Promising promiscuously, they have exaggerated government’s proper scope and actual competence, making the public perpetually disappointed and surly. Inflating executive power, they have severed it from constitutional constraints. So, sensible voters might embrace someone who announced his 2016 candidacy this way. . .

“Candidates are constantly asked, ‘Where will you take the country?’ My answer is: ‘Nowhere.’ The country is not a parcel to be ‘taken’ anywhere. It is the spontaneous order of 316 million people making billions of daily decisions, cooperatively contracting together, moving the country in gloriously unplanned directions.

“To another inane question, ‘How will you create jobs?,’ my answer will be: ‘I won’t.’ Other than by doing whatever the chief executive can to reduce the regulatory state’s impediments to industriousness. I will administer no major economic regulations — those with $100 million economic impacts — that Congress has not voted on. Legislators should be explicitly complicit in burdens they mandate.

Etc.  Now, I heartily endorse the premise behind this article—that modern presidents might be more successful if they talked less.  I can recall when Richard Nixon caused a commotion in 1970 when he made an offhand comment about the Charles Manson trial.  Today we expect our presidents to talk to us about everything—was Obama really well served by giving his ill-informed opinion about the Trayvon Martin case?

When did the serial inflation of the presidency begin?  Most people might chalk it up to television and radio, but the real culprit was Woodrow Wilson.  At least so says Stephen Knott, in a new article in the National Interest entitled “Did Woodrow Wilson Destroy the American Presidency?”  The short answer, if you’re thirsty to get to the pub, is—“Yes, pour me a tall one.”  But it is important to understand the deeper reasons why:

Both Professor Wilson and President Wilson believed that the Constitution was not fit for the complexities of twentieth-century American life. A document written at a time when the horse and buggy was the main mode of transportation was seen as an obstacle to creating an activist government capable of checking big business. Wilson held that it was the responsibility of the president to break the gridlock caused by the Constitution’s separation of powers and unleash the power of the federal government to restrain the barons of industry. . .

More than a century later, we continue to live under Woodrow Wilson’s regime, as scholars judge Wilson’s successors by the standards he set. Wilson upended the Founding or Constitutional understanding of the role of the president and overturned the expectations of what a president could be expected to achieve. Unfortunately, the Wilsonian conception of the presidency, adopted wholeheartedly by Democrats and eventually by Republicans, produced a massive expectations gap—a long train of heightened expectations followed by dashed hopes. . .

A century of progressive disregard for the Constitution has damaged our nation’s polity, possibly beyond repair. Too much is expected of the federal government, especially the presidency. Even strong nationalists like Alexander Hamilton acknowledged limits to what the presidency should do: it should concentrate on administering the government, conduct foreign negotiations, oversee military preparations, and if need be, direct a war. The president was to avoid demagogic appeals, engage in the steady administration of the law, protect the right to property, and conduct (in partial concert with the Senate) the nation’s foreign relations. It should not attempt to democratize the world, comfort the sad, or heal the planet.

Hear hear!  Read the whole thing, as the saying goes.

PAUL ADDS: Steve is spot-on in blaming Wilson for the modern presidency. Indeed, Wilson can justly be blamed for the blabber-mouth presidency that Steve decries.

Wilson believed that the president should communicate frequently with the citizenry in order to shape the public will — the spirit of the age — which the bureaucracy would then implement. From his earliest days as a professor, Wilson pushed for the teaching of rhetorical skills. Originally, he wanted universities to produce congressional orators who could shape the public will. His models were British members of parliament like William Pitt. To Wilson, only Daniel Webster measured up in America.

After Wilson soured on Congress, he poured these hopes into the office of President. As Stephen Knott says in the text Steve quotes, “Wilson held that it was the responsibility of the president to break the gridlock caused by the Constitution’s separation of powers and unleash the power of the federal government to restrain the barons of industry.” Presidential rhetoric was, for Wilson, a key element in breaking that gridlock and unleashing that power.

Prior to Wilson’s presidency, the State of the Union address almost always was delivered to Congress in writing. It is no accident that Wilson upset that happy state of affairs by delivering his 1913 State of the Union address as a speech before Congress.

It’s been pretty much all downhill since then.