The Pathos of Politics (88-6) Presidency


The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America. ~ US Constitution, Article 2, §1

The president is indirectly elected – via an electoral college – every 4 years and may only be reelected once.

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4 terms, or 16 years, is the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed. ~ American politician Thomas Dewey in sour grapes mode on his failure to defeat FDR in the 1944 presidential campaign

Guiding the country through the Great Depression and into World War 2, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was elected to 4 terms in office as president. Immediately after the war, the opposition Republican party, which controlled Congress, managed to enact the 22nd Amendment to the constitution, limiting a president to 2 terms.

 Electoral College

Founders feared that popular elections for president would lead presidents to have their own policy agendas rather than acting to safeguard the constitution. ~ American political scientist Chris Baylor

In all the world’s other 58 presidential democracies, the winner is the one with the most votes. Due to America’s electoral college, this does not hold true. A candidate who wins narrowly in smaller states can beat one who gets more votes overall. This did not matter much for almost all of the 20th century, but the past 2 Republican presidents have been minority presidents: George W. Bush by a modest 0.5%, Donald Trump by a thumping 2.1%: larger than the leads for the victorious John Kennedy in 1960, Richard Nixon in 1968, and Jimmy Carter in 1976.

The US electoral college has thwarted the popular will 5 times, yielding minority presidents of modest to ill distinction.

In a 4-man presidential contest in 1824, where all the candidates were in the same party (Democratic-Republican), John Quincy Adams was elected over Andrew Jackson, who got 38,149 more popular votes. Owing to the 4-way split in the popular vote, the electoral college did not give Jackson a majority of votes. So, the presidency was decided by the House of Representatives, which was helmed by Henry Clay, the lowest-polling candidate, and thus not under consideration by the house. Clay swung votes for Adams, denying Jackson the prize. For his support, Adams appointed Clay as his secretary of state.

Embittered, Jackson and his supporters created the Democratic Party. In the 1828 rematch, Jackson trounced Adams in a landslide.

Rutherford B. Hayes bested Samuel J. Tilden in 1876, after Tilden came in 264,292 votes ahead.

In 1888, Grover Cleveland beat Benjamin Harrison, despite being nearly 66,000 votes short.

Having lost by over 1/2 million votes, the Republican supreme court elected George W. Bush president over Al Gore in 2000 by squelching a recount of Florida votes where Gore would have won.

In the 2016 election, Donald Trump garnered the electoral votes of 3 swing states (Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin) by a total margin of 83,000 ballots while losing the nationwide popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 2.8 million. The margin in Clinton’s favor would have much wider (and Clinton would have won outright) had Republicans not suppressed minority voting and if the vote count otherwise had not been rigged outright.

The electoral college aimed at preventing demagogues and bullies from gaining power. On this the system has failed, as presidents Bush Jr. and Trump exemplified.

The modern electoral college is the worst of all worlds. It does not encourage republican virtues, as the founders planned. Nor does it confer the democratic legitimacy that modern Americans expect. ~ Chris Baylor


The presidency is the apex of federal government administration. Presidents exercise considerable discretion in their selective enforcement of the nation’s laws. For instance, under the administration of President Trump, corporate malfeasance of all sorts was largely ignored. Trump effectively eviscerated environmental and consumer protections so that corporations could pollute and exploit without restraint. In effect, Trump sewed nothing but chaos and extirpation.

The governing principle of the Trump administration is total irresponsibility, a claim of innocence from a position of power, something which happens to be an old fascist trick. ~ American historian Timothy Synder

The greatest leeway granted to the president is in conducting foreign relations. While treaties and acts of war must be approved by the senate, presidents have consistently committed the US to aggression overseas without oversight, and with only belated acquiescence.

As aforementioned, presidents have repeatedly used deception to start wars, or simply have done what they pleased without accountability. Despite the notion of checks and balances, those in government favor state power, regardless of their rhetoric. Indeed, very few political office holders, jurists included, risk damaging the political institutions they hold dear.

The 1972 Watergate scandal over illicit campaign activities at the behest of the White House was whitewashed as best as the politicians involved could, even as the Democratic opposition pressed their advantage.

People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook. ~ Richard Nixon regarding the Watergate scandal, legalistically relying upon a slang technicality of not being a crook (thief) as contrasted to being crooked

Nixon resigned rather than further damage the presidency and his legacy any worse than he had already. His hand-picked successor, Gerald Ford, pardoned Nixon for the same reason. Ford forsook his chance for election to the office in doing so.

On account of being a democracy and run by the people, we are the only nation in the world that has to keep a government 4 years, no matter what it does. ~ American entertainer Will Rogers

Several presidents have stretched or exceeded the constitutional limits of presidential power with certain initiatives. But it was not until Donald Trump assumed the office that it became clear an American president has practically imperial power, especially when at least one chamber of Congress is disposed to allow it, and more so if the federal courts have been stacked with enabling partisans (as was the case during Trump’s reign). Trump proved to be a triumph in illustrating how pathetic the US constitution design was in failing to provide for representative government via elections, and how the prized checks-and-balances supposedly built in is a chimera.

One man may as easily destroy as govern. ~ Ursula Le Guin


Federal administration is accomplished by a vast bureaucracy, divided into agencies. The President’s cabinet of 15 are the heads of these executive departments. Cabinet members must be approved by the senate.

In 2014 there were 4.2 million federal personnel, including 1.5 million in the military. Belying their rhetoric about downsizing government, from the 1960s, Republican presidents have consistently engorged federal employment, while Democrats have pruned it.

 Vice President

If we don’t succeed, we run the risk of failure. ~ US Republican Vice President Dan Quayle

The vice presidency was created by the Constitutional Congress as part of a convoluted scheme to prevent electoral college electors from trying to game the system to favor their own state’s candidate, thereby producing deadlocked elections. Distrust of democracy ran deep in the founding fathers.

(Each electoral college elector has 2 votes. 1 must be cast for a presidential candidate outside the state that the elector resides in. Fearing that electors would throw away their 2nd vote to bolster their favorite son’s chances of winning, Constitutional Convention delegates decided that the runner-up in the voting would become the vice president.)

The vice president is 1st in line to succeed a president if he does not fulfill his term, for whatever reason. This has happened 9 times: 4 assassinations (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy), 4 medical deaths (William Harrison, Taylor, Harding, FDR), and 1 resignation (Nixon). (President Harrison died of pneumonia, Taylor of digestive illness, Harding and FDR of a cerebral hemorrhage.)

Historically, beyond sending VPs overseas on diplomatic niceties, the vice presidency has typically been something of a 5th wheel in the administration.

President Clinton was a notable exception in making fulsome use of his like-minded VP, Al Gore. Clinton’s successor went further.

Given the task of finding a VP for Bush Jr., Dick Cheney nominated himself. Cheney had acquitted himself well in Bush Sr.’s administration as Secretary of Defense. In the Bush Jr. administration, Cheney played COO to Bush’s CEO shtick.


The presidency is not merely an administrative office. That’s the least of it. It is preeminently a place of moral leadership. ~ Franklin Roosevelt

Presidential democracies have the clearest segregation of powers, and so, supposedly, superior checks and balances between those powers. The United States demonstrates how such a system can work diligently against societal interests.