Pres. Harry Truman made the phrase, “the buck stops here” famous. Pres. Obama has embraced a similar stance with his often used
“the buck stops with me” line. Every president between Truman and Obama have told the people the POTUS (President of the United States) is where the buck stops when it comes to many situations such as natural disasters, man created disasters, economic challenges, environmental concerns, and more.
According to the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum the phrase was embraced by Truman when he received a sign for his desk. The library website shares the following story;
The sign “The Buck Stops Here” that was on President Truman’s desk in his White House office was made in the Federal Reformatory at El Reno, Oklahoma. Fred M. Canfil, then United States Marshal for the Western District of Missouri and a friend of Mr. Truman, saw a similar sign while visiting the Reformatory and asked the Warden if a sign like it could be made for President Truman. The sign was made and mailed to the President on October 2, 1945. (“The Buck Stops Here” Desk Sign)
Coming out of World War II Americans were ready to embrace this message. From the time of Teddy Roosevelt’s Bully Pulpit we have been taught our POTUS is the center of government for the people. “By the postwar era, Washington’s humble term “chief magistrate” could no longer adequately describe an office that in power and responsibility had expanded far beyond Hamiltonian hopes or Jeffersonian fears.” (Healy, The Cult of the Presidency, 2008, p. 79)
History shows presidential power increased through usurpation during times of war. Both Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt knew many of their decisions were beyond their constitutional authority. The framers of the U.S. Constitution placed most of the power in the Legislative Branch while far less power was conferred upon the Executive Branch. Perhaps they embraced the ides of
executive prerogative during emergencies as supported by John Locke.
But since a rational creature cannot be supposed, when free, to put himself in subjection of another, for his own harm; (though where he finds a good and wise ruler, he may not perhaps think it either necessary or useful to set precise bounds to his power in all things) prerogative can be nothing, but the Peoples permitting their Rulers, to do several things of their own free choice, where the law was silent, and sometimes too against the direct Letter of the Law for the publick good; and their acquiesing in it when so done… (Locke, Two Tretise on Government, London, 1821, p. 332)
Truman began a precedent of sending troops into harm’s way without requesting Congress to declare war by sending troops to the Korean Peninsula. On the heels of this usurpation Americans were faced with a threat of attack during the Cold War. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon all helped the Executive Branch gain more power. By 1973 the power of the presidency had grown to a point Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote a book entitled The Imperial Presidency. With the advent of Watergate and the resignation of Pres. Richard Nixon many felt the usurped powers were no longer going to be allowed. Congressional authority briefly came back into vogue. People lost hope there was one man they could turn to and rely on to solve their daily needs. Constitutional checks and balances were nearly restored when it came to the Legislative and Executive Branches of the federal government.
We then experienced the Iran hostage crisis and the rise of Ronald Reagan’s appeal to patriotism. International crisis has always been a key ingredient for Americans accepting an abuse of presidential power. A charismatic leader combined with an external threat equaled a resurgence of the Imperial President. “What began as emergency powers temporarily confided to presidents soon hardened into authority claimed by presidents as constitutionally inherent in the presidential office; thus the Imperial Presidency…The rise of the Imperial Presidency ran against the original intent of the Constitution.” (Schlesinger, The Imperial Presidency, 2004, p. x)
The original intent was to distribute power with the Legislative Branch, the people’s branch, having responsibility for war,appropriations, the regulation of commerce, and more based on the limited powers agreed upon by the several states. States were to retain power over daily concerns for life, liberty, and property based on the agreements between the citizens of each state and their governing officials under their state constitutions.
Today there are many crises both internationally as well as nationally. The growth of usurped power through appointment of czars, executive orders and signing statements shows a systemic challenge growing between the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and the Constitution. Modern imperialism began in the latter days of the Clinton administration, elevated to new levels with Bush, Cheney and the War on Terror, and is rising to even greater heights under the Obama Administration.
As Gene Healy writes, “If the public expects the president to deal with all national problems, physical or spiritual, then the president will seek – or seize – the power necessary to handle that responsibility. We’re right to fear the growth of presidential power. But the Imperial Presidency is the price of making the office the focus of our national hopes and dreams.” (Healy, 2009, p. 3)
This belief by the people will become the path progressives will accept for the final destruction of constitutional order in our country. Today we the people are so accepting of the notion it is the president’s job to handle all areas from the economy to health care; from natural and manmade disasters to the defense of democracy around the world we do so without notice. Conservatives are as willing to turn to the president as liberals are. A self-governing society cannot sustain liberty if it willfully, unconsciously gives away personal responsibility to a single person or the few people a president says society should trust.
The buck cannot continue to stop with the president if we the people are to maintain freedom under a federalist republic. As long as we embrace the notion we are a representative democracy and our federal government, especially our president, should do more for us than our state, local, or personal government we are doomed to repeat histories’ lesson. Representative democracy gives way to despotic rule and does so often to the applause of the many despite the fears and resistance of a few. To restore federalism the buck stops at the lowest level possible. In many instances that will mean the buck stops with you and me. It is time for us to decide; where should the buck stop?
Gary Wood is the Educational Advisor for the Utah Tenth Amendment Center. Co-founder of the Heritage Training Center, focused on helping end constitutional illiteracy. With 35 years of devoted study of our Constitution his desire is to help others rediscover the inspiring heritage of the United States. Radio show host, training officer, lifetime member of the VFW and most importantly Grandpa.
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