The single worst expression in American politics

As so many politicians do, Joe Biden perverts the Constitution when he instructs Obama critics that they will soon refer to him as "our commander in chief."

Published November 2, 2008 11:54AM (EST)

Joe Biden, speaking yesterday at a rally in Ohio (h/t Jonathan Schwarz):

Over the past week, Republicans have gone way over the top in my view, calling Barack Obama every name in the book, and it probably will get worse in the next three and a half to four days . . . . After next Tuesday, the very critics he has now and the rest of America will be calling him something else - they will be calling him the 44th president of the United States of America, our commander in chief Barack Obama!

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago (see the last few paragraphs):  if I could be granted one small political wish, it would be the permanent elimination of this widespread, execrable Orwellian fetish of reverently referring to the President as "our commander in chief."  And Biden's formulation here is a particularly creepy rendition, since he's taunting opponents of  Obama that, come Tuesday, they will be forced to refer to him as "our commander in chief Barack Obama" (Sarah Palin, in the very first speech she delivered after being unveiled as the Vice Presidential candidate, said of John McCain:  "that's the kind of man I want as our commander in chief," and she's been delivering that same line in her stump speech ever since).

This is much more than a semantic irritant.  It's a perversion of the Constitution, under which American civilians simply do not have a "commander in chief"; only those in the military -- when it's called into service -- have one (Art. II, Sec. 2).

Worse, "commander in chief" is a military term, which reflects the core military dynamic:  superiors issue orders which subordinates obey.  That isn't supposed to be the relationship between the U.S. President and civilian American citizens, but because the mindless phrase "our commander in chief" has become interchangeable with "the President," that is exactly the attribute -- supreme, unquestionable authority in all arenas -- which has increasingly come to define the power of the President.  Recall the explanation by GOP Sen. Kit Bond in June when explaining why telecoms should be immunized for lawbreaking after being "directed" by George Bush to allow illegal government spying on their customers:

I'm not here to say that the government is always right, but when the government tells you to do something, I'm sure you would all agree that I think you all recognize that is something you need to do. 

And, in a December 2005 speech, Joe Lieberman infamously invoked the same twisted mentality to attack those Democrats who were committing the crime of criticizing George W. Bush "in a time of war":

It is time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be Commander-in-Chief for three more critical years, and that in matters of war we undermine Presidential credibility at our nation’s peril.

It's this distinctly authoritarian mindset that also explains the still-astonishing confession by The New York Times' White House reporter Elizabeth Bumiller that reporters such as herself were "very deferential" to the Bush administration in press conferences in the run-up to the war because "It's frightening to stand up there . . .You are standing up on prime time live television, asking the president of the United States a question when the country is about to go to war."  White House reporters weren't questioning a political official who is to be held accountable.  They were gently -- "deferentially" -- posing questions to The Commander-in-Chief.

This is also a crucial aspect of the still broader trend of vesting more and more unchecked, centralized power in the White House.  The more the President is glorified and elevated (he's not merely a public servant or a political official, but "our Commander in Chief"), the more natural it is to believe that he should have the power to do what he wants without anyone interfering or questioning.  

Whether deliberate or not, the chronic assignment to the President of this title is a method for training the citizenry to conceive of our political leaders, especially the President, as someone whose authority is naturally and desirably expansive and absolute.  He's supreme.  It converts civilians into soldiers and Presidents into supreme rulers.  It's no surprise that this is the shape our government has now taken; this phraseology both reflects and helps to enable the transformation of the President into an unaccountable, virtually omnipotent figure.

Worse still, to equate "the President" with "our commander in chief" is to depict the U.S. as a state of endless war and pervasive militarism.  Even in the limited sense that the Constitution uses the term ("Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States"), the President doesn't always wield that power, but only when those branches are "called into the actual Service of the United States." 

It was never envisioned by the Founders that we would have a permanently deployed military, which is why they imposed on Congress' power "To raise and support Armies" the prohibition that "no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years" (Art. I, Sec. 8).  Equating "the President" with "our commander in chief" rests on the opposite assumption:  that this power is not just central to the presidency, but intrinsic to it, because we're always a nation at war.  Garry Wills, in a superb New York Times Op-Ed last year, described the history of how the term "commander in chief" has recently been expanded and abused, and wrote:  "The glorification of the president as a war leader is registered in numerous and substantial executive aggrandizements; but it is symbolized in other ways that, while small in themselves, dispose the citizenry to accept those aggrandizements."

* * * * * 

It certainly seems, by all appearances, that Barack Obama and Joe Biden will win on Tuesday (though anything can happen, don't assume anything, etc. etc.).  For reasons I've explained many times before, I consider that to be a good and important outcome (principally due to the need to excise the Right from power for as long as possible).  But the virtually complete absence from the presidential campaign of any issues pertaining to the executive power abuses of the last eight years -- illegal eavesdropping, torture, rendition, due-process-less detentions, the abolition of habeas corpus, extreme and unprecedented secrecy, general executive lawlessness -- reflects how much further work and effort will be required to make progress on these issues no matter what happens on Tuesday. 

Much of this is deeply embedded in the political culture.  Very few people in the political and media establishment object to any of it; most either tacitly accept or actively believe in it.  And the natural instinct of political officials -- especially new arrivals determined to achieve all sorts of things -- is to consolidate, not voluntarily relinquish, extant political power.  It will help to have in the Oval Office someone who has, at least at times, evinced the right instincts on these matters (even though during other times he has acted contrary to them), and the better outcome on Tuesday (the defeat of John McCain) will likely ensure some very modest, marginal improvements in terms of the rule of law, executive power abuses and constitutional transgressions.  But that outcome is merely necessary, not remotely sufficient; the election by itself will not produce fundamental changes in most of these areas.  That's going to take much more than a single election, standing alone, can or will accomplish.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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