Here's Mark Weaver's latest op-ed, as published in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Spoiler alert: government power is like a cube of energy.
Read below or click here.
Both sides misunderstand the role of the president
By Mark R. Weaver
A year ago, roughly half the country was celebrating the inauguration of a new president and the other half was lamenting the years to come. And nine years ago, those respective sides were in near turnabout. Barack Obama took the oath of office cheered by supporters giddy with victory, while the opposition grumbled with despair.
This discord isn’t new, but it’s growing deeper. And it yields a bumper crop of challenges. The problem is complex, yet many proposed responses are equal parts reflexive and reductive.
Much of this American anger focuses on who resides in the White House. Too often, when the candidate we opposed wins the presidency, we become gloomy about the fate of the nation.
This melancholy of the vanquished can be traced to at least one core misconception – the illusion that most of the government’s power resides in the president. Those who view the president as the daddy of the country or the person “running the country” need remedial study in American government.
Power in the United States is peacefully given through the consent of the governed and then divided and separated among many leaders. The president is simply one of many holding that power.
Imagine all the power to run a nation condensed into a cube of energy. Throughout the sweep of time, monarchs, chieftains, and despots have jealously monopolized that powerful cube. The fates and fortunes of those governed rose or fell based on the whim of the cube-holder. Corrupt leaders grasping the full complement of power could rob their countrymen of everything, including their lives.
Our founding fathers were avid students of history and, having just escaped the snare of a jealous king, were keen to frame a system of governance that would confound the ability of any one person to bring down a nation.
Common bedside reading for the likes of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton was the work of French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu. Building on the division of powers in ancient Rome, Montesquieu noted that spreading power over many people limited the likelihood of wide-spread corruption or incompetence.
Thus, the Constitution, through the principles of separation of powers and federalism, takes that cube of energy and divides it at least nine different ways. The first three cuts occur left to right – the branches of government. These executive, legislative, and judicial slices split authority that, in most nations, had been housed in a single ruler.
The next division is top to bottom, three more slices of Neapolitan ice cream-inspired division. These federal, state and local layers distribute government power among officeholders in Washington, state capitols, and city halls.
After the slicing and dicing, power is divided among literally thousands of different people. No single person in that array – not even the president – can widely affect the power held by others.
Because executive branch leaders hold sway individually, presidents, governors, and mayors are more noticeable than legislators and judges. That’s why people tend to focus more on them and it leads many to conclude that the character, competence, or credibility of a president matters more than for other leaders. It doesn’t.
If you hated the last president and blame most of our nation’s problems on him, you’re wrong. And if you detest the current president and attribute most of our difficulties to him, you’re equally wrong.
I know this perspective will clash in the minds of many. Our brain is much like our musical ear, which prefers Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” to an overtired toddler’s piano rendition of “Chopsticks.” When we hold a strong belief, information from those who challenge that belief seems incorrect. Which is why cognitive dissonance is more than just choice “B” on your psych mid-term.
So don’t take my word for this. Read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist Papers. These are the owner’s manuals for our republic.
The occupant of the White House might lead the news every night and be the easiest person to argue about, but that doesn’t make him the center of government power. Many presidents expected to run things only to discover that other officeholders also had their hands on the tiller of our ship of state.
President Truman groused, “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to have sense enough to do without my persuading them. That’s all the powers of the President amount to.”
From township trustee to the commander in chief – every government role is consequential. By design, the power to govern America is less like a single guide star and more like the bright constellations glowing in a clear night sky. And understanding that will help you fully appreciate our galaxy of government.
Mark R. Weaver is a crisis communications consultant and a partner at the Columbus law firm Isaac Wiles. His new book is “A Wordsmith’s Work.” Twitter: @MarkRWeaver.