Like it or not, the president of the United States embodies America itself. The individual inhabiting the White House has become the preeminent symbol of who we are and what we represent as a nation and a people. In a fundamental sense, he is us. It was not always so. Millard Fillmore, the 13th president (1850–1853), presided over but did not personify the American republic. He was merely the federal chief executive. Contemporary observers did not refer to his term in office as the Age of Fillmore. With occasional exceptions, Abraham Lincoln in particular, much the same could be said of Fillmore’s successors. They brought to office low expectations, which they rarely exceeded. So when Chester A. Arthur (1881–1885) or William Howard Taft (1909–1913) left the White House, there was no rush to immortalize them by erecting gaudy shrines—now known as “presidential libraries”—to the glory of their presidencies. In those distant days, ex-presidents went back home or somewhere else where they could find work.
Over the course of the past century, all that has changed. Ours is a republic that has long since taken on the trappings of a monarchy, with the president inhabiting rarefied space as our king-emperor. The Brits have their woman in Buckingham Palace. We have our man in the White House.
Nominally, the Constitution assigns responsibilities and allocates prerogatives to three co-equal branches of government. In practice, the executive branch enjoys primacy. Prompted by a seemingly endless series of crises since the Great Depression and World War II, presidents have accumulated ever-greater authority, partly through usurpation, but more often than not through forfeiture.
At the same time, they also took on various extraconstitutional responsibilities. By the beginning of the present century, Americans took it for granted that the occupant of the Oval Office should function as prophet, moral philosopher, style setter, interpreter of the prevailing zeitgeist, and—last but hardly least—celebrity in chief. In short, POTUS was the bright star at the center of the American solar system.
As recently as a year ago, few saw in this cult of the presidency cause for complaint. On odd occasions, some particularly egregious bit of executive tomfoolery might trigger grumbling about an “imperial presidency.” Yet rarely did such complaints lead to effective remedial action. The War Powers Resolution of 1973 might be considered the exception that proves the rule. Inspired by the disaster of the Vietnam War and intended to constrain presidents from using force without congressional buy-in and support, that particular piece of legislation ranks alongside the Volstead Act of 1919(enacted to enforce Prohibition) as among the least effective ever to become law.
In truth, influential American institutions—investment banks and multinational corporations, churches and universities, big =city newspapers and TV networks, the bloated national-security apparatus and both major political parties—have found reason aplenty to endorse a system that elevates the president to the status of demigod. By and large, it’s been good for business, whatever that business happens to be.
Furthermore, it’s our president—not some foreign dude—who is, by common consent, the most powerful person in the universe. For inhabitants of a nation that considers itself both “exceptional” and “indispensable,” this seems only right and proper. So Americans generally like it that their president is the acknowledged Leader of the Free World rather than some fresh-faced pretender from France or Canada.