Display from “Path of the Presidency” at the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, TX.

Wanted: President of the United States

This presidential election year, like every presidential election year, American voters are asked to choose one individual as the President of the United States. That begs the question: what is the President supposed to do?

Most voters have a vague notion that the President is the leader of the United States, and that he or she makes the country better by changing policy. In other words, most voters hire their President (for we indeed hire our President) without understanding the job description of that office.

To understand the role of the President, we must first understand who the President serves. In politics, we speak of constituencies in reference to the voters who elect a politician. The President is unique in that the President’s constituents are the American people as a whole. A President’s charge, therefore, is to serve the desires of the American people.

Charles Nash, a historian of the American conservative movement, has identified two paramount desires that are universal for Americans: a “want to be secure from threats both beyond and within our borders,” and a “want to be free.” If we assume the viewpoint of the Declaration of Independence, that our government’s duty is to ensure our “pursuit of happiness,” then our President (our head of state) is charged to keep us safe and to preserve our liberty.

Security

Foremost, the President is responsible to keep the American people safe from foreign threats. This is the oldest responsibility of government, and remains its most important function. If a person’s town may be invaded, his home seized, and his family brutalized, he is incapable of being happy, never mind pursuing it.

The foundation of national safety is a clear border, properly enforced. After all, without a clear border, how will a President identify all the people to be protected, let alone mobilize the military to protect them. Once borders — be they physical boundaries, nautical demarcations, or sectors of airspace — are defined, a President must keep the nation’s military strong enough to defeat any threat. This requires the President doggedly recommend to Congress measures and appropriations necessary to build a sizable military force and exceptionally competent officer corp.

How large? During the century following the Napoleonic Wars, the British Parliament ensured its people’s safety by retention of a navy strong enough to defeat any two opposing navies simultaneously. So long as Parliament retained that navy, the United Kingdom was not attacked, much less invaded. Theirs is an effective rule that may be expanded to cover the army and air force, as well as the navy.

However, physical size does not guarantee military success: superiority of technology and officers do. Therefore, to achieve supremacy over any two foes, a President must insist that Congress fund the continued technological advance of the US military, and the continued patronage of our first-class military academies.

With a strong military comes the equally grave danger of unnecessary conflicts. Large numbers of men with big guns tend to want to use those guns, a tendency that particularly afflicts the commander-in-chief. A President must resist this temptation, recognizing that security is achieved by great power unused, far more effectively than by perpetually bludgeoning foreigners with the giant stick of the U.S. armed forces.

Liberty

Once secure from foreign threat, the American people will be safe to pursue what they choose. Unfortunately, physical security is not enough; people must also be free to pursue their desires. Therefore, a President needs secure the liberty of the people.

This is the President’s most difficult responsibility, as it puts the President in conflict with Congress and even the President’s own nature. History is replete with instances of states stripping the liberty of their people, a tendency that manifests in all forms of government: monarchies, oligarchies, democracies, and even republics.

That is why the authors of the constitution wrote separate branches with the powers to make law, to execute law, and to review law, and why the constitution charges each branch to suppress the other two. The authors also made Congress the most powerful branch by vesting it with the capacity to create law, under the belief that it is much harder for hundreds of legislators to discard liberty than a single chief executive.

At the same time, the authors wanted further safeguards for liberty. They therefore gave the President power to be particularly effective at defending it. The President has the power to overrule Congress, thereby making the creation of law harder, and blunting a potential “tyranny of the majority.” A President ought to wield this power to axe any law that impairs liberty — be it freedom of speech, association, thought, movement, self-defense, employment, love, health, etc.

The American constitution restrains congressional repression of liberty in another way: most legislative power rests with the individual states, not with Congress. The United States is a collection of 50 states, each responsible for the welfare of its own citizens. The liberty and happiness of the American people is in fact the combined liberty and happiness of the people of each state.

Just as the President must defend the liberty of the American people, so too must the 50 governors defend the liberty of their people, even if doing so means opposing Congress. Accordingly, an effective President understands that to increase the liberty and prosperity of the people in each state individually, is to increase the liberty and prosperity of all people collectively.

To that end, a President must foster conditions that allow each state government to maximize the liberty or its own people. Most often, doing so requires a President to veto congressional actions that attempt to assume state authority. Individual state governments know best what their people need to prosper, so a President must resist the temptation to homogenize the nation’s laws.

By execution of these policies in support of the necessities of security and liberty, an American President will fulfill the root desires of the American people. Security permits liberty, liberty permits prosperity.

This construct of presidential responsibility may seem overly simplistic, but it is deceptively difficult. 44 presidents have had 227 years to perfect the fulfillment of security and liberty, yet America is still threatened from abroad, and the American people still feel oppressed. Unfortunately, too many presidents have too often distracted themselves with other policies and other objectives, at the expense of their two most important goals.

This presidential election year we should hire a candidate who vows to focus.