What is the President’s Greatest Responsibility?

According to President Obama, he has no higher duty than to protect the American people.  But that’s not what the Constitution says.

“As President, I have often said that I have no greater responsibility than protecting the American people,” wrote President Obama in the new “National Strategy for Counterterrorism” (pdf) that was released by the White House yesterday.  A similar sentiment appears in the Introduction to the new Strategy, which states that the President “bears no greater responsibility than ensuring the safety and security of the American people.”

This seems like a fateful misunderstanding.  As chief executive and commander in chief of the armed forces, the President obviously has responsibility for national security.  But to claim that he has no greater responsibility than “protecting the American people” is a paternalistic invention that is historically unfounded and potentially damaging to the political heritage of the nation.

The presidential oath of office that is prescribed by the U.S. Constitution (Art. II, sect. 1) makes it clear that the President’s supreme responsibility is to “…preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  There is no mention of public safety.  It is the constitutional order that the President is sworn to protect, even if doing so entails risks to the safety and security of the American people.

The new Strategy document attempts to foreclose the possibility of any conflict between constitutional values and public security by asserting that the two always coincide.  “We are committed to upholding our most cherished values as a nation not just because doing so is right but also because doing so enhances our security.”  It just so happens, the document says, that constitutional values are instrumentally useful in advancing security.  “Adherence to those core values — respecting human rights, fostering good governance, respecting privacy and civil liberties, committing to security and transparency, and upholding the rule of law — enables us to build broad international coalitions to act against the common threat posed by our adversaries while further delegitimizing, isolating, and weakening their efforts.” (p.4).

But the idea that adherence to constitutional values always enhances security is wishful thinking.  The Constitution imposes burdensome limits on government authority and guarantees various rights in order to advance individual freedom, not collective security.  As a result, the interests of security and constitutional freedom are often in conflict, and it is necessary to give priority to one or the other.  One has to choose.

14 Responses to “What is the President’s Greatest Responsibility?”

  1. Burlyman78 June 30, 2011 at 12:01 PM #

    Yes! What is the purpose of government more broadly?

    ” That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . . ” — Declaration of Independence

  2. Susan Hall June 30, 2011 at 12:47 PM #

    Thank you for this important insight at a time in the US when our leaders are looking for every excuse to continue to be violent abusers against human beings in order to further benefit the richest representatives of oil and other corporations, and at the very cost of a government that holds freedom as invaluable and its results of a caring society.

  3. lollard June 30, 2011 at 1:04 PM #

    The constitution is built to ensure safety and happiness by restricting the sovereign government from cannibalizing the people. Madison wrote extensively in the federalist about the dangers of a war time executive hell bent on security, safety, etc. as a pretext for limiting liberties. Thus the president as well as officials/reps in all three branches and even in state governments are sworn to protect, as you said, the constitution above all else.

  4. Steve Jones June 30, 2011 at 1:33 PM #

    Wouldst that we were adhering to our core values. We are not. Our phones can be tapped without warrant. Our property can be searched and seized when we cross the border back into the US. Core values? Ask Bradley Manning, James Risen, and Thomas Drake (to name but a few) about adherence to our core values.

    Thanks for the reminder, Mr. Aftergood.

  5. Hsquared June 30, 2011 at 2:08 PM #

    This is the kind of knee jerk idiocy that I expect to hear from right-wingers. It’s akin to the constant “He doesn’t say the word ‘Terrrorist’ enough”, complaints that you hear from the no-nothings at Fox news. This vague, meaningless, feel good statement by the President can be presented to make whatever point your agenda calls for. If you hate Obama, then his statement means that he doesn’t know or value his true responsibility as President, to protect the constitution. If you love Obama, then there’s no better way to protect the American people than to protect the constitution, so he’s right.

  6. Kurt July 1, 2011 at 7:33 PM #

    I like your opinion, but technically speaking, you are just making shit up…”I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, AND will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” Where is protecting the constitution declared to be a more “supreme” responsibility than faithfully executing the Office? It’s not, Steven.

    Go ahead and re-read Article 2, Section 2, where the president’s powers are actually laid out. You may agree that civilian power over the military is probably the greatest responsibility, but maybe you prefer the power to require opinion from his top officers. Maybe you, just like BushCo, think that willy nilly invading other countries that pose no eminent threat to the US is the way to use the military – it’s not definitively stated in the constitution, is it. But I think the responsibility for commanding the military lies in protecting Americans, so I agree with Obama, who reads the constitution quite well.

  7. Steven Aftergood July 1, 2011 at 8:48 PM #

    The Office of President is defined by the Constitution, so there can be no conflict between executing the Office of President and protecting the Constitution. But “protecting the American people” is not a Presidential authority or responsibility that is defined in Article II. And there are all kinds of steps that could be taken to protect the American people that are inconsistent with the Constitution. In such cases, the President’s obligation is to protect and defend the Constitution. That’s elementary.

  8. Kurt July 2, 2011 at 3:07 AM #

    “The Office of President is defined by the Constitution, so there can be no conflict between executing the Office of President and protecting the Constitution.” <– That's silly. Laws are passed that conflict with the constitution, but the constitution states that "he shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed". So, execution and protection may conflict.

    Hey, you missed citing the part where the Office is defined. Is it the same Article 2 Section 2 (and 3) that I mentioned above? Because that is where the powers are defined. It is a definitive list unlike the oath, part of which swears that the president will do their best to defend the constitution (not exactly the strongest statement). While Art 2 Sect 2-3 lists the president as the commander of the military, the Constitution does not state what the military is to be used for by the president or why a civilian authority is required. Is it really only to defend the constitution? We should have a deeper bunker for that paper if that is the case.

    You quasi-close readers have a funny understanding – POTUS will defend the parchment, the Constitution, the physical text that has rested in a cold room for a couple hundred years. It doesn't say that he is to defend the "constitutional order" that you insert. (Or is it okay for you to insert here?) That is his "supreme" responsibility as you put it, far beyond acting as the civilian authority over the military to defend the american public and property. That seems to be splitting hairs, so you can critique Obama's statement as civilian authority over the military.

    Towards the end of your writeup, you confuse what POTUS describes as "core values" and what you re-write as "constitutional values". Because you are trying to do a close reading, it seems that you wouldn't confuse the two. Or could you show me where the text actually states "constitutional values"? That might be elementary.

    Anyways, thanks for the discussion.

  9. Kurt July 2, 2011 at 9:56 AM #

    Having said all that, the entire premise of your writeup starts by re-writing the words in the document. How do you read into his statement that one responsibility is “higher” than another?

    He claims the greatest responsibility is protecting the american people. In what sense? The most burdensome? It provides the greatest immediate impact, the most powerful impact, what? Why do you read “highest” into “greatest”, when it’s not what is stated in the document?

  10. Aaron S July 3, 2011 at 2:25 PM #

    Steven,

    I’m not sure your assertion (“It is the constitutional order that the President is sworn to protect, even if doing so entails risks to the safety and security of the American people”) is wholly accurate.

    Consider the Preamble, outlining the goals of the Constitution and the conceptual framework surrounding its forthcoming text: “…in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution…”

    National defense and collective security were among the very purposes of the Constitution’s establishment.

  11. Zharkov July 5, 2011 at 11:41 AM #

    Mr. Aftergood’s assertion is correct. To understand why it is correct, it is necessary to understand the attitude of the founders of this country. They did not value security over liberty.

    “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
    — Benjamin Franklin

    We have a Statue of Liberty, not a Statue of Security.

    The ignorant American may believe that his security is the highest value to be protected by a president, but that was not the basis for our constitution. The constitution was written to protect liberty, not security.

    The Declaration of Independence affirms this in writing, by stating it is the duty of citizens to abolish any government that no longer protects their liberty, which was what the American Revolutionary War was all about.

    “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” – Declaration of Independence, 1776.

    General Washington fought British soldiers to make America free of British rule, not to make us “secure” in our bondage to Britain.

    The highest value to be protected by every American and his president is the liberty of his fellow citizens. One can simply look at the Bill of Rights to know that much – that is why citizens are presumed innocent until proven guilty – because our collective security is a lower value than the liberty of the individual citizen.

  12. Winston Smith July 5, 2011 at 2:45 PM #

    Synopsis of the U.S. Constitution: To provide for the common welfare.

    This is based on the recognition that our individual liberty and security is predicated on our collective liberty and security.

    The document pertains to our governance.

    We were to have transparency in governance (the cleansing effect of sunlight) and privacy in our persons.

    We are sovereign individuals. We are to give our informed consent to those who represent us. An informed people will act responsibly.

    The Macro View:

    We will live cooperatively or perish collectively–there is but one (1) biosphere.

  13. Norman July 7, 2011 at 11:38 PM #

    Well then, whether it’s “security of the people”, or the “Constitution”, I would say that the P.O.T.U.S. has failed in protecting all the people over the few who would cause those people to be in bondage. This is another example of the so called learned ones to interpret the Constitution to fit their machinations of the office.

  14. Susan July 8, 2011 at 2:28 AM #

    “Give me liberty or give me death!”

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