Briefly Noted: That “Office of the President-Elect” Thing is a Disgrace (cf. Federalist 70)

This is a rant. Do I think anything bad will actually happen because of this stupid office? Not really. Do I think it is a good thing? NO.

I’m not saying this to be anti-Obama. He will be my President, and I’m happy to have a President.  Furthermore, this terrible idea of an “Office of the President-Elect” has been around a while – he’s only using what’s already there. But the overly fawning media coverage, coupled with his high-sounding rhetoric – I mean, it was bad before, but now it looks like people really do think this guy is the Messiah – has led to what I suspect is the first real violation of Constitutional form.

It’s one thing for the “Office” to be there, it’s another to use it like the way he’s doing now, as if he’s been inaugurated already and his mandate comes with no qualifications. There’s a big difference between making a transition and seeming to be the Emperor of the Universe.

Remember all those arguments back in US history class the Founders made? The ones about the Executive power not being divided, since when you had multiple executives you had chaos?

That’s what we have now, except there isn’t much chaos. All I see is lots of attention favoring one man: Barack Obama. He can stand up there and say everything he likes and talk about “transition” and gloat about his team. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has to do the actual work of day-to-day governing. Obama can simultaneously reject their policies vocally, strike what he thinks are insider deals with other foreign leaders and undermine the day-to-day work, and get all the benefits from a White House that has said it wants to make the transition smoothly.

You might say: “So what, President Bush isn’t being treated fairly.” If that were all that was the case, I wouldn’t be speaking about this. The issue is that Barack Obama is more powerful right now because he’s doing damage to the Presidency generally, and this will cost even him down the road. Let’s look quickly at Federalist 70.

Hamilton establishes that “energy in the executive” is a good thing –

It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy.

Now if you want “energy,” the executive needs to have “unity.” “Decision, activity, secrecy, and dispatch will generally characterize the proceedings of one man in a much more eminent degree than the proceedings of any greater number.” I think you can see how the mere office of a President-elect makes every decision questionable; promotes “activity” counter to the activity currently necessary; endangers “secrecy” (everything you need to tell the President-elect so he can do his job later is liable to slip). “Dispatch” is the only thing not harmed because President-elect Obama is all talk and “change.gov” right now.

Hamilton goes on to describe how “unity” can be destroyed:

This unity may be destroyed in two ways: either by vesting the power in two or more magistrates of equal dignity and authority; or by vesting it ostensibly in one man, subject, in whole or in part, to the control and co-operation of others, in the capacity of counsellors to him. Of the first, the two Consuls of Rome may serve as an example….The Roman history records many instances of mischiefs to the republic from the dissensions between the Consuls, and between the military Tribunes, who were at times substituted for the Consuls. But it gives us no specimens of any peculiar advantages derived to the state from the circumstance of the plurality of those magistrates. That the dissensions between them were not more frequent or more fatal, is a matter of astonishment, until we advert to the singular position in which the republic was almost continually placed, and to the prudent policy pointed out by the circumstances of the state, and pursued by the Consuls, of making a division of the government between them. The patricians engaged in a perpetual struggle with the plebeians for the preservation of their ancient authorities and dignities; the Consuls, who were generally chosen out of the former body, were commonly united by the personal interest they had in the defense of the privileges of their order.

It’s always worth it to go back to the Federalist. The strongest argument on the surface is that an “Office of the President-Elect” attacks the Presidency itself. I think given the rhetorical nature of the Presidency today, the “Office of the President-Elect” might as well be the President.

So why can’t we have two “Consuls,” perhaps one to be all rhetoric and one to actually do stuff? The issue is that having two executives is giving not merely a faction, or two factions, but factional warfare itself the supreme power. The only reason why ancient Rome didn’t tear itself apart immediately was that the Consuls were cut from the exact same cloth. The only reason why we’re not tearing ourselves apart, perhaps, is that a Harvard MBA and a Harvard Law grad hold the position of current and future President, respectively.

But try this stunt with people who have real grievances against each other and you’re asking for someone, as they make the transition, to do very subversive things and exacerbate tensions between the rest of us to fever pitch. The real issue with a divided Executive is that it tells us that we don’t have to be united as a people, the result of the vote and our adherence to laws do not matter.

I need to be clear here: I don’t think the American people are going to break laws or commit vote fraud because of this “Office of the President-elect.” I do think a few very ambitious people within the government are going to try and find new ways to attack the powers of other branches and grab power for themselves. None of this would be bad, even, if it weren’t for the fact that properly balancing them out is an issue – as we’ve noted, the precedent is for one guy to take all the credit and another to do all the work, and that’s not a stable balance.

The damage that’s being done here, to be most exact, is this: unless Obama’s Messiah image continues, the Presidency alone does not have the ability to unite us formally like it needs to. If his image slips a little bit, all those romanticized and glorified members of his “team” in the past few days will be looked at as representing factions we find ourselves closer to. It is possible to undermine yourself by creating rivals within your own cabinet and party you don’t need. Given that Obama’s stance on FISA is out of lockstep with the netroots, and his NAFTA and campaign finance positions might also be potential sources of conflict, the division of the Executive his newfound office promotes is not a good precedent.

9 Comments

  1. ok…i didn’t read the whole thing.

    but as for the media coverage, the majority of americans don’t like bush. people want the media coverage on obama.

    and while it’s a lot of hype, i think you are overexaggerating a LOT. the only stuff i’ve heard is stuff that it’s good to sort out before you take office. ie briefings on…stuff, cabinet members etcetc. my other theory would be is that people are really starting to freak about the economy. in ohio, it’s just starting to really sink in. the general thought is that bush will do the whole lame duck thing so obama has to get his act together on the economy now to try to immediately start enacting things once sworn in. it’s the economy that won this election and it’s going to keep the media focused on him.

    besides the fact that he’s awesome…

  2. Sarah nails it!

    ROTFLMAO.

    The Messiah has accomplished less than nearly any politician ever in the history of America!
    Every one of his ideas require productive Americans to work harder and produce more just to stay at whatever level they were.

    Obama is the bee keeper and the productive in America are the worker bees….so he can create a hive of slackers.

    Obama doesn’t inspire the poor, the downtrodden, the slackers, the losers, the lazy, and those who wasted all their time in public school to greatness. The Messiah is telling them to hold on! …. Help is on the way to bail out their lazy behind.

    Any yet millions like Sarah offer that Obama is “Awesome” without anything of substance to back up their argument.

    I agree, however. Obama is awesome: An Awesome Deceiver!

  3. Thank you for the article.

    I’ve noticed that the media coverage has increased and I’ll probably be watching the news even less than I currently do (unless it’s local). I noticed just last night that Obama smiled and winked at the camera in this smug manner that just makes you want to cringe. It was like a five year old at a birthday party. On the other side, I’m sure a lot of people fainted out of sheer intoxication.

    I agree, Ashok, the whole idea of this President-Elect is divisive and misleading. He’s not THE president yet so he needs to quit acting like it already (although, his presidential seal has been ready for quite some time). I think that the concept of President-Elect allows for less accountability as Obama, like others, will place blame on the previous administration if things went bad and take credit for things that went well (even if there’s no evidence to prove it). I’ve already grown weary of hearing about “President-Elect Obama” when the media purposely calls President Bush “Mr. Bush.” There’s a complete lack of respect towards a conservative in office.

    I don’t think there is any way that PEBO (President-Elect Barack Obama) will unite the country as he was dead set on dividing it even during the campaign. There’s no way that the most liberal senator, that votes against bipartisanship 100% of the time, will unite anyone unless they agree with him on everything. That’s anything but bipartisan.

    As my wife pointed out, I think it would be interesting if we went back to electing only a president with the runner-up becoming vice president. Now, that would require true bipartisanship.

  4. like Sarah I filed this post as TLDR.

    However from a brief skim, like many Republicans you want it both ways, the freedom to run a dirty campaign against Obama, while crying foul when your own candidate is treated with less than reverence. The Office of President Elect is necessary for strictly practical reasons. Unlike most other democracies, the U.S. does not have an extensive politically neutral civil service, and indeed the current administration has politicised a far wider range of advisors and administrators on the fringes of government than anything seen previously. This means that a new President cannot take over the day after the election, and the OPE is necessary to ease the transition, by enabling the new President to assemble his team and get them briefed by the outgoing administration. I am afraid that I suspect that you only find problems with this, because the you would like as many obstacles in the way of the next administration as possible, and if the situation was reversed, and it was a Republican taking over from a Democrat that you would find no problem.

    I would take your high minded concern about the ability of the Presidency to unite the nation rather more seriously, if the Republicans had not run the most divisive and intransigently partisan administration in US history, just one of the reasons GWB is regarded by many as the worst President in living memory. National unity will only come when the Republicans are able to show as much flexibility intellectual curiosity and open mindedness as President Elect Obama has already done. In Reagan’s time the Republicans were the party of ideas which challenged the orthodoxy, while now you have become much more orthodox and rigidly ideological than the consensus you replaced, while suffering from a paranoid persecution complex, believing you cannot get your ideas discussed, or point of view across to the majority. You need to get back to your Reagan roots, which means examining many of your core beliefs with as much detachment and intellectual daring, as you had about that tired post war consensus, and coming up with new ideas about how to build a better world. Sadly though I suspect that like the Conservative Party in the UK, you are far more likely to take refuge in that strict orthodoxy, and will only begin to acknowledge your problems after a lot more punishment at the polls.

  5. Wow, why am I not surprised, a bunch of Obamination supporters who didn’t even – in Sarah’s case – to read the whole argument! Then they continue to use names and smears to “spice up” their ignorance. I mean, when did tolerance equal stereotyping? Oh yeah that’s right when we are talking about conservatives.

    The whole Office of the President Elect thing, in general, isn’t bad – as alluded to by our author. What’s bad is the way that Obama is carrying on as if he is the Commander in Chief. He isn’t, at least not yet, not until he takes the oath. What Obama is doing, in fact what he has been doing this whole time – during his campaign (I’ll spell it out for our slower friends here) – has been undermining the office of the presidency, the very office that he seeks. He has acted from the get go as if he can go around the world and make policy decisions as a candidate and now as the president elect.

    I suggest that the commenters here take the time to actually read this post, and our authors other posts, before leveling some very serious accusations and insults.

  6. Joshua, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

    The Liberal Response typically looks like this:
    1) Make an unfounded accusation (without reading/listening to the actual content and context)
    2) Use vulgar language and call names to start off the personal attack(s)
    3) Make baseless comment to distract from what the content and original intent truly was
    4) Repeat

    That’s what I’ve learned this election year.

  7. @ Eric Carroll,

    Those 4 steps sound a bit Rovian, no?

    I read the article and found it interesting, but not half as interesting as the comments.

    Obama ran a divisive campaign? Really? Even when compared to the McCain/Palin ticket?

    Amazing.

    RHM

  8. Unfortunately you can’t get some people to address the issue. The subject here is not hate for Obama, but nervousness over an unnecessary and potentially harmful– overstepping in the government. We don’t need two people representing this country to the rest of the world or acting in this capacity and it’s true there’s not a whole lot of difference between these two particular men, but that doesn’t mean that will always be the case. Obama- or the news media, whomever you prefer to blame- is setting precedent for really using this thing that really shouldn’t be there.

  9. I thought the article was well written and raised several good points. You also did a good job explaining why some of those points were not big issues, while others were. You have the same problem with your writing that I have with my art: Liberals have an emotional reaction, refuse to read the full text, then attack you on a personal level. To be fair, Conservatives do this on certain subjects as well, but that is not the current topic.
    The main problem these people are having is a lack of understanding. If they can’t grasp that America is a Republic, rather than a Democracy, they can’t be expected to understand someone’s behavior can affect the checks and balances established by the Constitution.
    Anyone who argues the point by saying someone is awesome, invalidates their opinion. Even if she personally knows Obama, his personality has nothing to do with his qualification for the job. He might be the nicest man in the world, but he’s a Socialist, and no amount of feel good will repair the damage of his agenda.
    There is nothing you can say to these people, and no amount of documentation you can give to change their minds. I recently learned as much with one of my blog posts. We will see how it all plays out. I suspect they will love him no matter what happens.

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