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The Difference Between a President and a King

The Difference Between a President and a King

By Jeremy Lott - March 20, 2010

Washington, D.C. is consumed with talk of healthcare reform. This is not popular with the rest of the country, if polls are anything like a reliable indicator. Yet everybody here keeps jawing about it because President Barack Obama is determined that a bill simply must pass. He speechifies about it endlessly and he and his surrogates are busy twisting arms until enough members of his own party cry "Uncle!"

In a telling phrase, the AP reported that Obama was "turning up pressure as only presidents can" in search of those final votes. He met privately with several members of Congress to convince them to vote for the bill, over their loud public objections to its contents. He offered opera tickets to Bart Stupak and gave Dennis Kucinich a ride on Air Force One. However he hasn't been so nice to all the likely no votes. The less said about his naked chief-of-staff, the better, but Obama has reportedly told Democrats who don't vote for the bill that they shouldn't expect his support in the midterm elections. His close allies the labor unions are calling for primary challengers to those wavering congressmen who decide to vote against the bill.

Right now, people are betting on Obama's success - literally. Punters on Intrade.com give it a better than 70 percent chance of passing. They are likely looking to history as their guide. The last major expansion of U.S. government healthcare was the massive drug subsidy of Medicare Part D. It occurred in 2003 when President George W. Bush put the screws to an extremely reluctant Republican Congress.

D.C. Examiner online opinion editor David Freddoso was then covering Capitol Hill for Human Events. He told me he had talked to Iowa Congressman Steve King "on the phone maybe three hours before the vote. King said he absolutely was going to vote against it and then he voted for it." King wasn't alone. Several holdouts caved at the last minute, leading Freddoso to be extremely skeptical of any publicly announced whip counts on bills that the president cares about.

The congressmen caved because of the tremendous pressure the president brought to bear on members of his own party. In one case, Bush's operatives sent letters to all the big financial donors of one stubborn Republican opponent, telling them not to give him money. If you believe Obama is above that sort of thing, drop me an e-mail. We should talk about a timeshare.

This is not how the presidency was supposed to work, argues Gene Healy, a vice president at the libertarian Cato Institute and author of The Cult of the Presidency. The president was supposed to be a "limited constitutional officer," not the man who "sets the national agenda" and "bullies Congress into submission" through his media provided pulpit or through more direct pressures. Certainly, said Healy, many of our early presidents were involved in the details of legislation but the "niceties that had to be observed" forbade the sort of threats and speech making that many recent presidents have been so keen on.

"For most of the nineteenth century," Healy told me Tuesday, "the legislature was in the driver's seat." In fact, Andrew Jackson, the first president to really embrace the bully pulpit, inspired a whole new political party to rise up against his allegedly tyrannical rule. Healy observed that the founders would have considered Obama's recent harangue in Ohio - in which the president ordered Congress to damn the polls and pass the legislation, already - "the height of demagoguery."

It's not just right-of-center types who are concerned with our too powerful executive. During the Bush years, countless liberals warned of the return of an "imperial presidency." Liberal historian Garry Wills's latest book, Bomb Power, is all about how our modern executive has turned into a sort of elected monarch with few checks on his authority. Wills and company are more concerned with how the president treats matters of war and peace and civil liberties, but the president's ability to impose an unpopular agenda matters just as much, I should think. In the end, the difference between a president and a king is quite simple: you can say no to a president.

Jeremy Lott is an editor for RealClearPolitics and author of The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency.

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