The Imperial Presidency

Willem Buiter is in Martha’s Vineyard for his family holiday, which sounds nice — except for one thing. His blog post takes up the story.

The only blight on the landscape of this holiday is that, once again, a US presidential family has decided to vacation on Martha’s Vineyard during the month of August. From earlier visitations by the Clintons, I know that the arrival of the presidential hordes on the Vineyard represent a massive negative externality for all those who go there in pursuit of the same thing the president and his family seek: peace and quiet. Whether the local economy gets a temporary or lasting boost, I leave as a project for Econ 101.

The presidential party (or presidential court) that tags along on any presidential journey, let alone a temporary relocation involving the entire presidential nuclear family, looks and behaves like an occupying army. There are hundreds, if not thousands of persons charged with security, ranging from the secret service to the specially beefed-up state and local police forces. Communications experts, specialist medical personnel, myriad advisers and countless other presidential hangers-on cause the Vineyard to sink at least a foot deeper into the sea. The carbon footprint is bigger than that of the yeti. The press corps and assorted other media camp out all over the island, competing with the presidential staff for first place in the hot air emission stakes. Roads are blocked. Traditional rights-of-way are suspended. Beaches become inaccessible.

He’s seen this elsewhere too:

The only time I have been to Davos for the World Economic Forum (the event with the highest ratio of self-importance to importance of any gathering of humans anywhere, ever), president Clinton attended part of the circus. Let me emphasize that I was there ex-officio only – as briefcase carrier (aka chief economist) to the president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. US security personnel simply took over the town, established a defensive perimeter and bossed and bullied everyone there, including the Swiss army and police, on the roads and in the meeting halls. The only time I have seen anything like it was when the Israeli prime minister visited the Binnenhof – the centre of government in the Hague, the Netherlands. Israeli security personnel took such a complete grip on that part of the Hague, that the Dutch prime minister had to argue with them to be allowed to use his own office.

I recognise that security considerations are important, and that the days when a US president could walk his dog down Main Street on his own are unlikely to return anytime soon. Even so, the in-your-face arrogance of the modern imperial presidency is breathtaking and, I would argue, dangerous to a democratic, open society. The gap between the president (or indeed the president-elect) and the average American becomes infinite as soon as the presidential election polls close. This isolation cannot be twittered or blackberried away. The president effectively becomes the prisoner of his court. As a president’s time in office wears on, this isolation leads increasingly to distorted views of reality, at times bordering on paranoia.

The force- and reality-distortion field that surrounds the US president is indeed extraordinary. In the last 15 years, the President and Vice-President have, on separate occasions, visited the village where I live. When the Prez (Clinton) came, an entire floor of the nearest hospital was commandeered (and closed to NHS patients) for the day of his visit. Not sure what happened when Al Gore came.