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.