Skip to content
A Problem With Presidents, Not the Presidency 
Go to my account

A Problem With Presidents, Not the Presidency 

The biggest problems these days are not with the office, but its occupants.

(Photos from Getty Images.)

“It is men who wait to be selected, and not those who seek, from whom we may always expect the most efficient service.” —The Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant

Thought experiment: If we were free to remake the office of the presidency today, how would we proceed?

Imagine that Article II of the Constitution along with 12th, 20th, 22nd, and 25th Amendments were suddenly unlocked. How would you want delegates to a new constitutional convention to reimagine the presidency?

On this observance of Washington’s birthday, we find that the office created for him and defined by his two terms in very poor repair in the eyes of voters. And could you blame them?

After the unpardonable transgression of one president in trying to disrupt 224 years of the peaceful transference of power—arguably the lowest point in the history of the office—his successor appears feeble as he prepares to seek a another term, at the conclusion of which he would be 86 years of age.

Even in an era when the word “crisis” is so sorely abused, one would have to say that the presidency seems to be facing just that. Even with the kingly powers granted to and taken by its occupants, the office is unable to meet the impossible demands of a nation that has understandably learned to mostly ignore or disdain Congress and state governments. 

A broken system has caused power and expectations to pool up in the presidency like syrup in the neck of an upturned bottle. Yet there is no authority great enough nor any appetite for autocracy sufficient to give the people what they want. Those things—domestic tranquility, liberty, opportunity, equal protection under the law—can only be the products of a functioning republic of divided powers. 

Presidents keep promising to do impossible, unconstitutional, and even illegal things in reply to Americans’ frustrations with a system that often cannot execute basic functions or respond to obvious, longstanding problems—even when broad consensus exists for a solution. But there is, blessedly, an obvious curb on our interest in having a strongman to break the impasse. 

The delegates to the convention that built the office of the chief executive were fitting it to the form of Washington, whom they had just unanimously elected as president of the body. Their inclinations toward kingship were understandable given that the man they had in mind had proven himself to be judicious, honest, patriotic, effective, and, most importantly, not greedy for power. 

Those attributes would not be a concern for delegates to our imaginary convention. Rather they would ask: Could a useful presidency be built small enough to contain the appetites of Donald Trump? Ministerial enough for Joe Biden? Having a president of low character followed by an unsteady one allows us to clearly see the problems with autocracy. The presidency we would invent today would probably be too weak and too decentralized to be both head of state and head of government. 

Americans have already turned our republican system into a jury-rigged parliamentary one in which effective government can take place only when one party controls the presidency and both houses of Congress. Participants in a modern convention might make it official and give us a prime minister instead of a chief executive. But that wouldn’t be very helpful for the world’s apex power at a time of global instability challenges. Nor would it be a good idea to add any new incentives for partisan tribalism.

But if there was a Madison among the delegation, he or she might see that the biggest problems with the presidency these days are not with the office, but its occupants. That suggests a problem with the way they are chosen.

Many of the delegates in our thought experiment would surely cry for the president to be elected by one national, popular vote instead of the Electoral College. But aside from the defect of increasing the chances that a candidate might actually be able to succeed in stealing a future election with only one result to rig or vandalize, a national popular vote would not do anything to improve the quality of the people from whom voters must choose. 

Before the debate over how to decide between two candidates, delegates would first need to consider how to choose the candidates in the first place. Given the inability of the major parties as currently constituted to reliably pick nominees who are both virtuous and able, it seems obvious that the most urgent reform would be to how those nominees are selected.

No one would design the system as we have it, in which a small percentage of voters in a handful of states have effective control of the final choices available to the whole nation. What we have is democratic, but hardly representative. I don’t suggest that I know a perfect substitute, but I do know that replacing the function of parties in picking nominees with primary elections has established the wrong incentives. Our imaginary delegates would need to consider a better way.

The modern Madison might suggest “supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives” and design some elegant system still rooted in our traditions that would reward the virtues we seek in our presidents and punish the obvious vices.

Overweening ambition and undignified self-promotion are unworthy of Washington’s office and of the nation its holders serve. Those baser behaviors should not be requisites for a job that is supposed to be about courageous, sacrificial, unifying leadership. 

We do not need a new presidency; we need a new way to select our presidents. 

There won’t be a spontaneous rewriting of Article II anytime soon, but in the coming weeks and months as party leaders at the state and national levels—as well as voters—shape the process that will select the next two candidates for chief executive, they ought to imagine what a more wholesome, virtuous system would look like. 

“It should be the highest ambition of every American to extend his views beyond himself, and to bear in mind that his conduct will not only affect himself, his country, and his immediate posterity;” Washington wrote not long after his first election, “but that its influence may be coextensive with the world, and stamp political happiness or misery on ages yet unborn.”

Just because we have fallen short of that standard does not permit us to abandon it.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.