On the very day he is inaugurated, President-elect George W. Bush has a unique opportunity to distinguish himself from nearly every president in the 20th Century.
He can, in a few short sentences, put himself in league with Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison. He can resurrect the first principles of the nation and transform Beltway politics. When he takes his hand off the Bible and turns to the thousands who have come to see the President, all he has to do is mention the Constitution.
"Every President in the nineteenth century, except Zachary Taylor, mentioned the Constitution, and most of these [inaugural] addresses were at least partly structured by reflection upon its meaning," according to Jeffrey K. Tulis, author of The Rhetorical Presidency.
The President, at that time, stood before the nation as a promoter of the Constitution and a defender of its ideals: limited government, trust in the people, the restraint of political power, and equality under the law.
He used the inaugural address as a time to remind people, during the peaceful transition of power, of these deeply held American principles.
But this tradition ended in the 20th Century. Tulis found that "only half of the twentieth-century inaugural addresses even mention the word Constitution (or any of its provisions), and none of the twentieth-century addresses contain analyses of the meaning of the Constitution."
The President simply stopped explaining the importance of the Constitution and his role in stopping the expansion of power to protect the liberties of the people. This may be hard to believe because Americans rely so much on tradition and emotion when Presidents are inaugurated.
Presidents talk in soaring words and invoke abstract ideals of equality and freedom. Pundits and journalists condemn or promote his mandate based on their ideological presuppositions. And the people listen for what they might be getting from government over the next four years.
The President has become a policy salesman and party leader who seeks to advance his party's cause. But that is not what America's Founders had in mind.
The President was originally supposed to represent all the people. The most important part of his job was the defense of the Constitution and the preservation of limited government.
The Founders intended the chief executive to execute the rule of law. By mentioning the Constitution, George W. Bush would invoke this vision that implies limited government and the concept that American greatness is founded on the people's freedom and virtue, not the government's good intentions, new spending, or some elite's worldview.
In discussing the Constitution, previous Presidents also educated citizens to the threats to limited government and the moral pillars required for its preservation.
Thomas Jefferson noted that, "It is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its Administration."
He saw his constitutional job as the restraint of government and trust in the people. In his second inaugural address he wrote, "Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him?"
For Jefferson, the President's role included "the suppression of unnecessary offices, of useless establishments and expenses," which result in government "intrusions" and "domiciliary vexations."
John Adams reminded Americans that constitutional liberty hinged on the "knowledge, virtue, and religion" of the people. These are the "only means of preserving our Constitution from its natural enemies, the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, the profligacy of corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence, which is the angel of destruction to elective governments."
Because they relied on the Constitution, the great freedoms of the people required great responsibility. As George Washington put it, "There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity."
The early inaugural address also explained the President's lone, often unpopular role in this process of defending the Constitution and ultimately the people's liberty — an important reminder that government wasn't a public trough at which gluttonous citizens or interest groups feed.
In the 20th Century, beginning with Woodrow Wilson, the President began to push specific policies by making an end run around the representatives in Congress. Because the President stood alone, he had the ability to appeal directly to the people. And this proved to be irresistible temptation to bribe the people into reelecting him — exactly what the Constitution stood against.
With this use of the bully pulpit for partisan politics, the power of the presidency expanded with the federal budget.
Even 50 years ago, it was inconceivable the President would use the position as Clinton has to involve Washington in everything from school uniforms and teen smoking to video game ratings and how long a mother should stay in the hospital after delivering her child.
Bill Clinton fought the rule of law laid forth in the Constitution when he perjured himself in the Lewinsky case and used his office to obstruct justice. Similarly, his policies and executive orders have increased government power with abandon.
By reminding the people of the Constitution's role, George W. Bush would go a long way to beginning the healing process and help reclaim the Founder's legacy that looks to the citizen's initiative, education, and personal responsibility as the moral polestar to guide a great republic.