An Assistant President?


The American presidency is constitutionally and by tradition a very strong executive, our 33rd chief executive Harry S Truman uncharacteristically philosophized. And it sometimes makes less difference what his decision is but that he make one, he is alleged to have concluded. We say “alleged” for the Truman Library holders of his essences can’t find any quote like that. Maybe it was pillow talk between him and his notoriously publicly apolitical wife Bess. Or maybe it is just one of those many aphorisms mistakenly attributed to public figures because, like this one, they seem to fit.

But with that presidential power comes duty of almost limitless extent. Perhaps it could be argued that since Truman’s time those demands have become even heavier. Although thinking back to Harry’s role, his plate was indeed full: picking up after our iconic three term President without so much as a briefing [on the nuclear bomb project, for example], the test of America’s WWII victory immediately by Stalin’s aggression, the rebuilding of Europe, and the Korean War and all its dangers for another worldwide conflict and the test of civilian control of the military with the magnificent Douglas MacArthur, the epitome of the warrior.

Still Truman probably had that talent for administrative discipline which many Presidents, however brilliant and successful or unsuccessful, have not had. Truman came to the presidency with a remarkable life experience: a soldier in World War I, he had seen some of the worst of war. As a would-be entrepreneur who failed miserably at a time of deep economic stagnation. As a politician, he had worked in the bowels of one of the most corrupt but capable Big City Machines. Once in the national legislature, he had conducted what may have been the most successful Congressional investigations ever [the corruption of WWII government contracts][Aide-memoir to Congressman Trey Gowdy!], and, of course, the decision to introduce nuclear weapons to warfare.

Roughly, the U.S. president has three sets of duties, all of them more demanding than any one human being ought to have to carry and which test his abilities every second of the day.

He has first the protocol of president, the ceremonial duties that in other regimes is often handed off to a chief of state with little if any political power.

Secondly, he is the boss, the central figure at coordinating the vast bureaucracy as it goes about its individual tasks. [Truman: “The buck stops here!”] That, of course, includes being the civilian to ride herd over what is now and has been for some time and presumably in the near future the greatest military the world has ever seen.

And thirdly, he has the often delicate but critical role of cajoling his own political party and its adherents and opponents – more often than not the media and the public as well – into carrying out the necessary functions of government and those he would like to impress on it.

The Founders, while anticipating the possibility of a sudden demise of the president, produced a stand-in, the vice president. Logically, they thought, he should be the man defeated by the elected new president with the next most  votes. But it quickly became apparent that didn’t work and the 12th amendment to the Constitution sets up the separate election of a vice president.

Traditionally he had so little to do – except to be the presiding officer over the Senate.  One of the shrewdest and most pithy commentators, John Nance Garner who held the office for two presidential terms, said it was “not worth a bucket of warm piss”. Often, as in the case of Garner and Truman with FDR, they have not even been the president’s confidante.

The contrast with Pres. George H. Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, could not be sharper. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Cheney’s politics, he served Bush in a capacity rare to other vice presidents. In no small part, that came from his career – a long list of staff positions both in the Congress and the executive including the presidential staff, a Congressman, secretary of defense, and even a presidential campaign manager. His severe health problems and apparent  lack of ambition for the highest office insured he was not a future presidential candidate. He became perhaps the most important cog in the wheels of the Bush Administration including taking precise policy positions to the president, often rejected.

Cheney became, not the vice president, but the assistant president, taking at least part of the load off an overloaded presidency.

One could have hoped this new pattern would prevail. It may in time.

But in the incumbency, Joe Biden appears more royal than the king, a spear-carrier for Barak Hussein Obama. But given what appears to be the President’s own intimations about who is the smartest man in the room, one has to wonder. A long and hard look shows little evidence of Biden’s long association with foreign affairs impacting the Obama strategy, for example.

Looking at the president current roster of high-flying political candidates, it is Carly Fiorina, the Republican presidential aspirant, who exhibits the qualities which would make for such an  assistant president. Her extemporaneous responses to interviewers are remarkable not only for the rhetoric but for an almost hierarchical outline she immediately accords the issue. Whatever the arguments over her business career, and we tend to the view she navigated a huge ship through a rough sea, she has administration in her dna.

In her case, of course, at 61, she might well go on to the presidency as many vice presidents have done. But in the meantime, we have our candidate for assistant president.
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