With our primary election here in Virginia just days away, it is vital that voters have a reasonable understanding of the various roles that an American president has to play in the course of his or her responsibilities.
The president is, first and foremost, the chief executive of the United States government. The Congress passes the laws, the courts interpret the laws, but it is the president who is charged with executing those laws. The president is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States.
Surprisingly, the president can also be seen as the chief legislator, and has a huge impact on the legislative process. The president’s annual State of the Union address sets the national legislative agenda. He not only proposes many legislative actions through members of his own party in the Congress, including the federal budget, but the veto is a powerful legislative tool. In addition, the vice-president has the right to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate when necessary.
Another key responsibility is to serve as commander-in-chief of the nation’s armed forces, in keeping with the great American tradition that the military is subject to civilian rule. The president has vast powers to commit America’s armed forces both at home and abroad, with or without the approval of the Congress. While the Congress retains the constitutional authority to declare war, this country has engaged in many acts of foreign conflict without such a formal declaration, including Vietnam, Korea, Persian Gulf, Iraq and others.
The president is also chief of foreign policy. He or she must serve as the nation’s chief diplomat in terms of relations with both the other nations of the world as well as such international organizations as the United Nations and NATO.
It should be remembered that the President is also chief of state, serving as the ceremonial head of government. His roles include everything from greeting visiting heads of state, to tossing out the first baseball, to rolling out Easter eggs on the White House lawn. In that capacity he is the living and breathing symbol of the American people.
Overarching all of this, however, is the capacity of the American president to turn his office, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, into a “bully pulpit.” The president has the grand capacity to be a position of moral and spiritual leadership. As such, presidents have the opportunity to be at their best in times of national crisis. Scholars of the presidency have concluded that many of the “great” presidents were simply fortunate enough to occupy their office during such times of national emergency (Lincoln, FDR). Admiral Halsey, of World War II fame, said something similar about war heroes when he said (to paraphrase): There are no great men. There are only ordinary men who are called upon by circumstances to accomplish great deeds.
On Tuesday, Virginia’s voters will have the chance to have their say on who we trust with the awesome powers and responsibilities of the great office of the presidency. The person we choose will also have the authority, and very likely the opportunity, to make key appointments to the Supreme Court as well as to the major executive branches and the U.S. military. One hopes that voters will consider all of the roles of the presidency in making their selection, and not be swayed by dogmatic party loyalties, spin doctors, high priced campaign sound bites and commercials, and certainly not by race or sex. We are not electing a king or a dictator, but we are electing a leader – the only office voted for by all of the American people.
Joseph B. Filko is a resident of Williamsburg and has taught Economics and American Government.