The President, Not the Nation’s CEO

One important lesson from our history to remember is that the office of “President of the United States” is not meant to be the only chief executive in the nation. Let us reduce the office down to the size the Founders meant it to be and remind other chief executives of their authority and responsibilities.

The Framers of the Constitution, after much worried conversation on the matter, created a truly new type of head of state: not a king or a ruler, but an “executive” called a “president.” Though granting certain enumerated powers to the president, most notably that of being commander-in-chief of the army and navy, the Framers clearly limited those powers by giving him relatively short terms in office and making him removable by impeachment and accountable to both the Congress and the Supreme Court. Article II pales in comparison to Article I not because the president would have license to do anything but because it was understood that Congress would be deciding upon laws within the scope of that body’s likewise limited powers, and the president would be executing them.

When the nation’s first Congress was deciding upon the all-important matters of protocol and image, some senators were not satisfied with the plain title given by the Constitution to the nation’s foremost office. Vice President Adams pointed out that even “fire companies” and “cricket clubs” have presidents and suggested titles such as “His Elective Majesty” or “His Mightiness” as more appropriate, eliciting the sharp comment that Adams himself should be known as “His Rotundity.” But Congress stayed with the plain appellation “President,” whose very etymology suggests that the office presides rather than rules or reigns. As we all know, George Washington as president abandoned one of the titles he had carried during the war, “His Excellency,” and replaced it with the more business-like and down-to-earth “Mr. President.”

It is hard to remember in this multi-media-driven age in which we blame our every misfortune on the most visible representative of the nation — from natural disasters to imprudent business decisions on the part of multitudes — that the presidential office, like all of government, is supposed to have limited duties. For the most part, Americans are supposed to do for themselves and can do for themselves.

One of the last presidents who understood the office, the now undeservedly dismissed Calvin Coolidge​, once gave a speech to a group of boy scouts that is almost unimaginable coming from the mouth of Obama. After praising “reverence for law” and the “town meetings” he attended as a boy (not the kind where the President of the United States talks about national and international policy but the old fashioned kind concerning stopsigns and saloon licenses), President Coolidge​ explained the American way of self-government:

There is something in every town meeting, in every election, that approaches very near the sublime. . . . . I never address boys without thinking, among them may be a boy who will sit in this White House. Somewhere there are boys who will be presidents of our railroads, presidents of colleges, of banks, owners of splendid farms and useful industries, members of Congress, representatives of our people in foreign lands. That is the heritage of the American boy. (emphasis added)

What is remarkable about this speech, completely absent in the rhetoric of Obama, is that Coolidge fully counted on the local people (town meetings) doing for themselves precisely because there are other presidents in the land, almost or fully on a par with the president of the nation. Coolidge’s ideas about business — “the chief business of the American people,” as he said elsewhere — are a far cry from Obama’s “making government service cool again,” with himself high atop the federal bureaucracy, firing CEOs and upbraiding “greedy” bankers.

While Obama commands celebrity status, the presidential bully pulpit, and the mainstream media’s injudicious adoration, it is not easy to see what can be done to bring his power back down to earth. Until, that is, Americans regain their private-sector cool with Coolidge and realize that Obama is not the only chief executive in the nation.

In fact, he is not the most experienced chief executive in the nation. Nor is he the most tested chief executive in the nation. He is certainly not the most productive chief executive in this nation. And he is not, thankfully, whatever may be written for him on his teleprompter, the most articulate chief executive in the nation.

Obama was elected by 66 million citizens. The leaders of America’s major corporations have been elected, too, not only by their boards of directors but also by a much greater electorate: the American consumer, whose population is over 250 million strong. Not every American voted for Obama, but practically every American has eaten fast food and shopped in a Wal-Mart. Should Obama therefore be the only president in the nation to hold press conferences and town hall meetings on the state of the economy? Does he know the most or have the most true and compelling things to say about the economy? Should there not be some healthy competition between the two views of getting us out of this crisis: one that looks to government to solve all our problems, the other that looks to the productive capacities of free men and women pursuing their own hopes and happiness? If those two cases were made — the one by the President and his team of authoritarian advisors, having little or no experience in business, the other by the leaders of the great companies of our nation — which side would win the argument?

Imagine this scenario: A team of competent, popular, articulate CEOs of many of the nation’s great companies begin to hold press conferences addressing the current health and future prospects of their businesses. Would these CEOs not be obliged to address unambiguously the biggest roadblocks to future prosperity: high taxes, ridiculous levels of government regulation, massive public debt and its effects on available capital, and widespread uncertainty in markets? They owe this frankness to their investors, their workers, their customers.

Could Obama, with all the aplomb of his administration, really be able to respond weekly, and at times daily, to successful, articulate corporate leaders telling the public how things really work in the world of business and high finance? In this new battle in the long war between, not capital vs. labor, but business big and small vs. big, overreaching government, the leaders of business cannot stand by as spectators, continuing only to pour millions into lobbying, hoping either to avoid regulation or to receive a few scraps from the public table. They must take their case to the people. “Trust the people,” Ronald Reagan​ used to say, and so should business.

If Obama has his way, America’s business will never be business again. It will be bureaucratic, redistributionist, intrusive government. It is high time for some of these other presidents to speak up, take back their companies, and, in so doing, help ordinary Americans take back their nation.

Originally published on April 29, 2009.

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