The Unanswered Questions of the American Presidency and the Constitution

#CitizensRead Book Club picks up a constitutional guide to what future presidents need to know.

 

A recent appeals court decision acknowledged a concession many have resisted. Twitter has become an official channel of communication for the White House. A scroll through social media includes ideas about the presidency speeding past us alongside crazy recipes and cute pet videos. Our #CitizensRead Book Club decided to take a short opt-out this month. Politicolor’s “How-to be President” series invites us all to evaluate our presidential expectations and measure them against the original source, the U.S. Constitution.

Consider joining us. Pick up a copy of Corey Bretteschneider’s The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents and sign up here for our book club updates.

We will take a close look at Article II, of course, but that has never been enough to settle a debate. The U.S. Appeals Court fielded several claims about the office of the presidency, its powers and the individual officeholder’s rights. They cited the First Amendment as the guide to their decision:

“[The] First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open online dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees”

—2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals

We might want to skip seemingly trivial questions over the president’s practices of blocking other Twitter users. This very 21st Century problem reveals just how much the role remains open to interpretation. With Brettschneider’s book, The Oath and the Office, we will revisit the original questions and trace the many attempts to answer those questions throughout our past. The founding document fixes the questions we should pursue more than it settles the answers we often assume it holds.

 

Unanswered Questions about a President’s Powers

Brettschneider advises future presidents to avoid comparing themselves to Lincoln whose actions were of “questionable constitutionality.” They worked, however, to strengthen the country’s commitment to equal protection.

The Oath and the Office opens with a straightforward question—What do you need to know to be president? Your answer, my answer, and Brettschneider’s answer all start with the U.S. Constitution. That feels like a good “final answer.” The U.S. Presidency, however, is a tricky proposition.

We talk about the office as though the Constitution fixes specific powers and limitations in place. No negotiating can move them. Whatever the question, we argue as though we could “go to the text” and find the one right answer. That’s not the way the office has ever operated.

The story of the American presidency is one of unfinished business. If we allowed this understanding of the presidency into our public debates, we would stop looking to the Constitution for fixed answers. Instead, we would look for the questions and commitments that would help us navigate these features of the role:

  • The limits on the office have always been difficult to apply while we interpret its powers generously; the limits don’t work like the legal remedies we expect them to be.
  • Norms have always shaped our expectations of the president; the confluence of history and George Washington’s example made it so we have many unwritten expectations.
  • Presidents practice shape-shifting as part of their work; They unleash potent forces for expanding power when presenting themselves as offices of the Constitution, decisive leaders in world affairs, and/or bearers of electoral mandates.

Unfinished business leaves the job description open to interpretation and vulnerable to ever-shifting negotiation. This reality then requires expanding our view to see how every instance of delegating congressional power matters and why an independent judiciary is critical to the whole endeavor of self-government.

So, we’re reading The Oath and the Office this month because we want to check our presidential expectations. We also want to know we measure up to our role as citizens.

 

“But ultimately, the Constitution’s fate does not rest on words on parchment. It does not rest on the beliefs of Framers like Madison. It does not even rest only on today’s public officials. It rests on you, whether you are a future president or citizen.

It is your job—as it is all of ours—to preserve, protect, and defend the values of the Constitution.”

—Corey Brettschneider, The Oath and the Office: A Guide to the Constitution for Future Presidents