Partisan combatants have quickly taken up sides in the public debate over US president Barack Obama’s preemption of a wedding planned by two US Army captains at a course at which he wanted to golf.
Obama’s defenders stress that the White House was unaware of the planned wedding until after scheduling the president’s game. They emphasize that he apologized to the happy couple. And they note that those planning to use the course are alerted to the possibility that they might be booted to make room for POTUS.
Critics say the president is insensitive for evicting a wedding party. And in Obama’s decision to play at the expense of a military wedding they see more evidence of what they believe is his disrespect for the armed forces he is charged with commanding.
But notice what both sides seem to be accepting without question: What legendary Democratic historian Arthur Schlesinger called “the imperial presidency.” While presidents have always enjoyed considerable power and prestige, the presidency turns full imperial when, as is true today, the president is expected to oversee an expanding global military and economic empire, when the president is treated, not like an ordinary citizen but instead like a demigod.
Take a moment to think of the president as an ordinary American, with no special privileges or opportunities other than those directly required to allow her or him to perform the duties associated with the presidency. You don’t need a golf course to yourself in order to perform those duties. A president who was treated, legally and socially, as one of the people would be expected to share a golf course with everyone else.
But even if the president doesn’t deserve to be treated as socially superior to everyone else, don’t we all benefit if the president is protected from attack by an enormous security bubble? It’s not obvious that we do. Presidents can be effectively protected while they’re still treated like ordinary people. And, while no one ought to be the victim of aggressive violence, and it makes sense to take precautions against assassination attempts, presidents aren’t so important that their interests trump everyone else’s. Bluntly put, if the president is out of action for one reason or another, the sky won’t fall.
Even if you think it’s really necessary for the president to operate within an absurdly large security bubble, why think that she or he should get to use that bubble to exclude ordinary people going about their business? Believers in the bubble might insist that the president could demand an oversized protective zone when engaged in official business. But why imagine that the bubble could be put in place to allow the president to socialize or to engage in recreation or fundraising?
And it’s worth emphasizing that the imperial presidency makes violence against the president more likely. The more power presidents exercise over people’s lives, at home and abroad, the more people may resent the way that power is used, and sometimes seek to respond with violence. That kind of violence isn’t OK; but that it’s not doesn’t change the fact that treating presidents like emperors raises the odds that they’ll be targets for would-be assassins.
The problem with Obama’s golf course preemption isn’t a problem unique to Obama. And it doesn’t have much, if anything, to do with respect for the military. The problem is the imperial presidency. As long as we’ve got an emperor, we shouldn’t be surprised if he acts imperial.