YouTube video

To understand how the power of the head of state has changed in the United States, Paul Jay speaks to Matt Welch, Editor-in-Chief of Reason magazine.

Welch says that, “Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were the first “progressive” reformers who started the process of bringing monarchial symbols to the presidency. George W. Bush famously came up with the idea of the unitary executive, whereby the president is somehow constitutionally above the law. What is interesting about Barack Obama is that he started his campaign as someone who attacked that aspect of the presidency, but then stopped talking about it. During the inauguration speech Obama said “we reject the false choice between security and our ideals,” but supported Bush in his overriding of the rejected bailout to the auto industry.

Story Transcript

The cult of the Presidency Pt. 1

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network and our ongoing coverage of the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Only minutes before Barack Obama was sworn in as president, the 43rd president of the United States, George Bush, got on a helicopter and waved goodbye. In his speech, Barack Obama thanked President Bush for his service to the nation. Well, that service included what some people have called an imperial presidency, a unitary presidency; some people have said on many occasions an illegal presidency, at least illegal in terms of its actions, although some people even question the 2000 election. But the fundamental thing is what’s happened to the institution of the presidency. And there’s a love/hate relationship with presidents in the United States. Sometimes they can become symbols as big as kings. In President Bush’s case, as of September 10, people forget there was a television show called That’s My Bush, where the religious adoration of the president had collapsed already. Of course, post-9/11 we had the rebuilding of the image of the president, at least for some years, until Katrina. Now, with a new president, what are we going to see in terms of the legal institution of the presidency and the culture of the presidency? And our guest to help us understand this is Matt Welch. He’s the editor-in-chief of the monthly journal Reason, which is a leading libertarian magazine, and he used to be the op-ed editor of The Los Angeles Times. Thanks for joining us, Matt.


JAY: Sorry for the long introduction.

WELCH: It’s very good.

JAY: So talk about the cult of the presidency.

WELCH: Cult of the presidency is something that began really in earnest, probably, with Teddy Roosevelt. He was the first president to really, in John McCain’s words, restore the proper balance between the executive and legislative branches, by which he meant run roughshod over Congress. He’s the one who really introduced signing statements as a new kind of, almost, interpretation of the laws that Congress passed. Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson were the two big sort of progressive reformers; they started the process of bringing sort of monarchical symbols to the presidency. People forget the State of the Union Address was handed, for more than a hundred years, by letter. George Washington and the first presidents thought it was presumptuous of the president to stand up in front of Congress and even give a speech, because that was saying that they had more of a legislative role than a president should have properly. So Roosevelt, and Wilson, FDR, certainly accumulated a lot of power in the presidency. And then—.

JAY: Gore Vidal has called FDR the first American dictator.

WELCH: That is a way of looking at it. I might not use words quite that strong, but he definitely inflated the powers, and, you know, he stacked the Supreme Court, he grabbed a lot of power. In Washington, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were also a sort of a terrible duo when it came to both accumulating, spending, and abusing power. And then George W. Bush famously has been coming up with the idea of the unitary executive, where the president is somehow constitutionally above the law. And what is interesting about Barack Obama in many ways is that he started off his campaign as someone who was attacking that aspect of Bush’s presidency, and certainly the manifestations of that, how it affects civil liberties at home and how it affects the prosecutions of war abroad. Then he stopped talking about it. He really did not mention executive power at all. I was at the Democratic Convention, watched every speech: that phrase never came up. And it hasn’t come up much. He did say one thing today, which was in my mind very—it was the most hopeful part of the speech. He said, “We reject the false choice between security and our ideals.” And that’s a fancy and nice way of saying, you know, this whole, like, balance between liberty and security is not true, and we’re not going to sacrifice the Constitution for that. Now, it’s a great phrase, and I really hope he believes it.

JAY: And it’s a phrase that actually refutes much of the leadership of the Democratic Party, who signed onto all this stuff Bush was doing.

WELCH: Right. Well, Barack Obama also signed up for increased surveillance under [inaudible]


WELCH: FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] and such. But Barack Obama, just since the time he’s been president-elect, there was a test of his ideas about executive power. It was this: Detroit bailout, right, the Big Three or Big 2.5 automakers want money from Congress to bailout the fact that they’re run particularly badly, and Barack Obama has declared that they are the backbone of American manufacturing and must be saved. The Senate came very close but ultimately failed to pass a bailout for Detroit. So what did President Bush do? He said, “It doesn’t matter. I’m the president. We’ll just take money from TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program] and we’ll throw it at the Big Three. What was Obama’s response? He’s like, “You know what? It was necessary.” That is the doctrine of expedience. He explicitly rejected expedience in today’s speech. However, when it came down to something that he thought was important, it was fine for him to watch the president be expedient about his own prerogatives vis-à-vis Congress, and that for me is incredibly troubling going forward.

JAY: Well, I’m sure he’s speaking, at least in his mind, about constitutional rights, Patriot Act type of issues, and torture, and illegal rendition. I don’t know whether I think they could find a way to rationalize the auto bailout, of taking some money that had been already authorized for something else, and saying, “Okay, we can kind of figure out a way to stick that here.”

WELCH: But it’s the president doing something that Congress specifically disallowed him to do. You know, it is hopeful, you’re right, that Obama, allegedly this week, is going to issue the order to close down Guantanamo Bay. He is going to issue some order rejecting torture. This is very important and great to me, as an American and someone who cherishes liberty. However, the expansion of executive power is not just a question of how you use it in war; it’s how you use it in peace, and it always go hand in hand. FDR is an example. Woodrow Wilson is an example. All these people are examples. You can’t just pick and choose when you decide the president has more power than Congress and everybody else.

JAY: Right. Walking around Washington the last couple of days, Obama T-shirts, Obama plates, Obama—I think I saw an Obama hot dog. So there is Obama everything. The grounds for the Obama ization of the culture were very visible here. But I actually found his speech modest, in the sense that I didn’t find the speech all about me. It was contained. It was, “We’re in a serious situation and we have to do this,” and whether I agree or disagree with what he plans to do. I found, instead of, like, a great rhetorical moment, it was a contained, modest moment. And that, actually, I thought, for me was encouraging.

WELCH: I agree with you in part. There was a very interesting part at the end of the speech which had that. He was talking about, you know, these truths are old; you know, they’ve been around for awhile; we need to return to these timeless truths. This was a great sort of temperamental salve to conservatives, actually, who sort of believe that we should stand up before history, yelling “stop” and whatnot. And also it just had a very nice resonance and it was humble. However, in the same paragraph he also said that Americans, you know, have been placed here and thrust upon history; we will not take that reluctantly; we will seize it gladly. He used that terminology. We will seize what has been sort of bestowed upon America, gladly. And it’s the roots of the mentality, the sort of American exceptionalism mentality, which he has in fact embraced. He has talked about a more humble foreign policy, yes, but he’s also talking about how God has ordained this country, basically.

JAY: To lead.

WELCH: To lead.

JAY: To lead the world.

WELCH: And, in the meantime, he ran a campaign where every single day he talked about—to talk about something that you know much better than I, of doubling down our troop presence in Central Asia. He was going to be much more aggressive in Pakistan and Afghanistan than John McCain even was contemplating, and John McCain is a very aggressively sort of interventionist president. So, yes, he has sounded some of these notes, and I’m clinging onto those notes, you know, like a desperate, drowning man.

JAY: If you take what he said in the campaign, the foreign policy positions he espouses (William Kristol keeps telling us on Sunday morning television) were essentially the same as Bush’s, certainly Bush’s second term.

WELCH: Second term.

JAY: Bush’s second term. Now, people have always suggested that this is what you say to get elected, and what does he really think. And today was interesting in a way, ’cause he didn’t repeat a lot of that rhetoric. In a sense he didn’t say anything. And is that a transition to actually saying something new? And I guess only time will tell.

WELCH: I think that he has shown a strong interest in actually hitting the same notes as president-elect and as the president now as he did on the campaign. I think he actually takes his campaign promises and rhetoric pretty seriously.

JAY: Well, if that’s true, then it means the speech he made at AIPAC.


JAY: We’re going to take a quick break, and we’re just going to come back for one more segment and take a look, focus a bit, on the foreign policy issues. Please join us for the second segment of our interview with Matt Welch.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine. Welch's work has appeared in The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, Los Angeles Daily News, Orange County Register, LA Weekly,,, Wired, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Daily Star of Beirut, and dozens of other publications.