Presidential History

Presidents' Day Is a Good Reminder To Treat the Presidency With Skepticism

While the office was created with "modest authority and limited responsibilities," the modern president has increasingly unchecked power and authority.


Each February, Americans celebrate Presidents' Day with those two national pastimes: a day off work if they can get it, and sales on consumer goods. Originally established to commemorate George Washington's birthday, in 1971 Congress switched the holiday to the third Monday in February so as to include Abraham Lincoln's birthday as well.

On the federal level, the holiday is still known as Washington's Birthday, but in the popular imagination, it honors not only Washington and Lincoln but the history of the presidency itself, as well as all who have served. But this is exactly the wrong way to think about any government position, much less one imbued with as much power as the presidency.

Washington famously chose to retire after two terms in office rather than risk becoming akin to a king in the new nation. But in the more than two centuries since, the executive branch accrued enormous power in direct contradiction to what the Founders intended. As the Cato Institute's Gene Healy wrote in 2008, "The Founding Fathers designed a presidency of modest authority and limited responsibilities." Today, however, the president enjoys the unilateral ability to set trade policy, start wars, and accomplish legislative tasks through executive orders.

Each of the above powers was constitutionally given to the legislative branch, but over time a pliant Congress increasingly ceded these roles to the executive. And that's to say nothing of the other powers, like invoking the Defense Production Act to force private companies to make certain products, that Congress directly signed over to the president.

And yet the office of the presidency remains broadly popular, and the president's power tends to go unchallenged, what Healy refers to as "the cult of the presidency." An oft-quoted canard says that we should "respect the presidency, if not the president." But it can be hard to separate those two impulses; it's difficult to balance effective criticism of a politician against an inherent deference for his office.

There is some evidence that Americans are tiring of the pomp and frills imbued in the office of the presidency—but unfortunately, that's only when their party is out of power. As Politico's Michael Schaffer wrote, "These days, with significant portions of the country telling pollsters that the identity of the president affects their day-to-day happiness, we have a situation that might confound hero-worshippers and dirt-diggers alike: On any given day, around half the country is liable to find the institution itself a painful subject to think about."

Perhaps the institution should always be a painful subject to think about, or at least an unromanticized one. As Reason's Billy Binion wrote, "Presidents aren't saints. They aren't monarchs. They aren't celebrities. And they aren't your friends! The executive leader is an employee of the country—someone whose job was, and still should be, limited in size and scope."

Indeed, while individual presidents can be criticized or lauded for their individual actions, the office itself should be returned to the functionary role it was historically intended to serve. And Presidents' Day is a perfect time to remember to treat the office not with inherent respect but just as any other taxpayer-funded role.