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.