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What Do Presidents Need to Know?

Category: Art & Culture,Books

Brettschneider’s book, addressed to a presidential aspirant, begins with the question “What do you need to know to be president?” The answer: “Most of all, you need to know the U.S. Constitution.” This framing is one of the book’s great virtues: It moves the focus away from the too-common and too-narrow question of what the courts might force a president to do in the name of the Constitution to the more capacious question of how a president herself should understand her constitutional role.


For instance, Brettschneider devotes an early chapter to an examination of how presidents should use their bully pulpit — not an issue the courts are likely to involve themselves in, and yet one of the most consequential parts of the modern presidency. “There are things Americans should hear from their president, and also things they should not,” he writes. Specifically, “You should never use the bully pulpit to speak in a way that is contrary to the values of the Constitution.”

Indeed, Brettschneider’s core claim is that the Constitution embodies values, not just prohibitions and commands, and a constitutionally conscientious president has an affirmative duty to promote those values, among them equality under the law, respect for individual rights, limited political power and political deliberativeness.

These are excellent values to be sure, but our constitutional tradition also embodies much uglier ones, like white supremacy, patriarchy, xenophobia and militarism. How does Brettschneider pick out the constitutional traditions to which future presidents should be faithful? The answer appears to come via a kind of Whig history according to which the Constitution has always embodied liberal ideals and has simply been working itself pure for the last two and a quarter centuries.

Thus, Brettschneider, a professor of political science at Brown University, criticizes Republicans’ late-20th-century “Southern strategy” as inconsistent with American constitutional values, rather than recognizing the messier and sadder truth that it was a choice to embrace one grand constitutional narrative, that of white supremacism, over another, more egalitarian one. But Brettschneider’s Whiggery also comes out in myriad smaller ways, as when he says that a couple of early-20th-century Supreme Court cases on the fireability of federal officers give rise to a coherent constitutional principle, rather than seeing them for what they in fact were: disjointed attempts to respond to the emergence of the modern administrative state.

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