We Need a President, Not Just a Commander-in-Chief

In this primary season, the question of what makes a good presidential candidate has taken many forms. Is it how to negotiate with leaders of other nations? What kind of experience qualifies one to be a leader? Yet, the question that should make progressives ripple with discomfort is "Will the president be a strong commander-in-chief?" Emphasis on "commander-in-chief" activates a right-wing frame and progressives should be very circumspect in referring to the presidency in this manner. Though the words themselves are neutral, they have been used within a right-wing frame that is not obvious. The frame includes the following:

  • The overriding challenge facing our country is military in nature.
  • The military role of the president is therefore far more important than all of the other jobs he or she performs.
  • Military experience, or direct experience with military affairs (e.g., the Armed Services Committee) is the single most important experience needed for the presidency.
  • The country should be governed on a military basis. The state should first and foremost be a security state.
  • The temperament needed for a president is martial; the president should be a fighter and should be engaged in fighting.
  • The governing style for a president should be giving orders and making sure they are carried out.
  • Others in public service should be obedient to the president's orders.

That is what it means to make the "commander-in-chief" question the main issue in a campaign. The commander-in-chief frame shifts the role of the president away from governing our nation and into the more limited scope of managing military affairs. It takes us away from domestic questions, including other questions of protection and leadership. That frame is not what America is about. It does not embody fundamental American values. Nor does it portray what the role of the government is in our democracy. The dual roles of government are protection and empowerment, as we have written elsewhere. Protection is not just military or police protection, but a wide range: consumer protection, worker protection, environmental protection, social security, protection from natural disasters and disease, and protection from economic devastation. That is the major protective mission of the government. The protective job of the president is leadership, primarily in these areas, and also in military matters when our country is in serious danger of attack by a military force. Leadership in all of these areas places different requirements on a president:

  • The ability to articulate those needs for protection so that the nation will comprehend them as overriding needs.
  • The ability to get the country united behind plans for protecting Americans in all of those ways.
  • The ability to inspire a generation of Americans to devote their lives and careers to these tasks.

Protection and leadership are vital issues in a presidential campaign. But the commander-in-chief frame hides them, and replaces them with a right-wing model of government and of the presidency. Conservatives have a long history of dominating the landscape of ideas by trumpeting security issues. So long as the public generally thinks about military affairs as overwhelming, they will be susceptible to conservative frames. Associations between the presidency and commander-in-chief will tend to promote a conservative view of the world where use of force is not merely encouraged but made mandatory. This unfortunate distortion of constitutional law, as well as the real problems of Americans, has a major strategic impact in today's political climate. Throughout recent years the theory of the "unitary executive" has taken hold in the practices of the Bush Administration. This theory places the president in the role of decider at the helm of government, thus denigrating the roles of Congress (the real decider in matters of both foreign and domestic policy) as well as the courts. The imposition of the commander-in-chief frame imposes the top-down hierarchy of commands within the military on the decision-making authority of the president - reinforcing the "unitary executive" mindset. It conceals the fact that the president is only granted power to direct military activities during times of war. There can only be a commander if there is an army fighting another army. The term only makes sense within the military frame - typically enmeshed in the more general war frame. The kind of military chain of command and absolute authority in wartime does not apply to most functions of the president. The president is not supposed to be commander-in-chief of Congress, nor commander-in-chief of the FBI or the Justice Department, nor commander-in-chief of the American people. Right now he isn't even Commander-in-Chief of Blackwater, a private army. As we have just seen, the commander-in-chief role does not extend to most protections that a president should be concerned with - natural disaster (FEMA), health (FDA, health care agencies), environmental protection (EPA), etc. A president must address these domestic issues through leadership skills outside the realm of military action. As we've noted before at Rockridge, such issues of framing are central to our democracy: "Congress may argue against the President's Iraq policy, but when they do so using his words, and thus his fundamental moral frame, they put themselves at a distinct disadvantage. It is nearly impossible to persuasively present a progressive policy using conservative language and frames." Framing the role of the president in conservative terms suppresses progressive leadership frames. The conservative view of the world as a dangerous place where military threats always lurk nearby is not conducive to the tasks that make our world safer: communicating effectively with leaders of other nations, building trust and forging lasting alliances across the globe, promoting peace through diplomacy, and engaging in efforts to ease suffering through initiatives that build secure communities at home and abroad.

Instead, we are reminded of vague threats that evoke fear and encourage division among the peoples of the world. War and militarism activate fear circuits in our brains, altering the processing of information toward absolutist concepts of "good versus evil," "us versus them," and the acceptability of violence. Progressives need to understand the politics of fear if we are to build upon the basic human capacity underlying our view of the world - empathy with responsibility. Feelings of fear and anxiety reduce the expression of empathy and lead us to place responsibility elsewhere. The antidote is to pay attention to the common bonds we all share. As Shakespeare once wrote, "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" It is this recognition that pain in others is like our own that motivates the desire for healing and peace. Progressive leaders need to promote progressive leadership frames. This means dropping the commander-in-chief term in general debates about the nature of the presidency and shifting instead to the overall role of government, protection in general, empowerment of both individuals and business, and overall presidential leadership need to accomplish them. We need a President, not just a commander-in-chief.