False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency by Gene Healy

False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency [Kindle Edition] by Gene Healy, from Amazon.

A friend often asks me something to the effect of “is our current president incompetent or does he have a strategy to grow government and weaken individual rights”, to which I usually reply “yes”, meaning all of the above.  I don’t know how incompetent or how much of a strategy but I’m sure most of us have a least favorite president somewhere in history who nonetheless succeeded in getting himself elected.  This one is mine.

The title and cover of Gene Healy’s October 2012 ebook might lead one to believe he is giving a discourse on just such a subject:

False Idol

(I’m sure the juxtaposition of the Presidential Seal and the bowed head was a Judeo-Christian coincidence.  I’m sure…)

I found this ebook followup to his own June 2008 The Cult of the Presidency: America’s Dangerous Devotion to Executive Power, which I haven’t read, to be an indictment of the office in general rather than Obama in particular.  To his credit Healy is equally critical of the Bush 43 administration.  As he notes:

“Our “first civil libertarian president” has done much to facilitate our burgeoning National Surveillance State, and nothing at all to arrest its growth. Still, it would be a mistake to conclude that all of this reveals a conscious design on Barack Obama’s part to subvert American liberty— though if I could say otherwise in good conscience, I’d probably sell more books. But bureaucratic mission creep is a saner explanation for the erosion of domestic liberty than D’Souzian fantasies about Obama’s hidden radicalism.”

(Healy, Gene (2012-10-17). False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency (Kindle Locations 1097-1101). Cato Institute. Kindle Edition.)

“Alas, the idea that “strong presidential leadership will bring informed coordination and purposeful efficiency to the unrestrained, chaotic sprawl of modern regulatory government,” Cornell’s Cynthia Farina warned in a 2010 article, is “unrealistic, if not completely implausible.

Keep in mind that there are 15 cabinet departments and over 160 different federal government bodies with the authority to issue regulations. The executive branch comprises some two million civilian employees, and the Executive Office of the President, colloquially known as the “White House staff”— which was created to help the president get a handle on this sprawling archipelago of agencies— is itself around 2,000 people.”

(Healy, Gene (2012-10-17). False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency (Kindle Locations 1321-1327). Cato Institute. Kindle Edition. )

It would have been nice to have a business-oriented type such as Romney take a crack at managing those two million people.  That didn’t happen.  (Me.)

“As Slate’s Dave Weigel put it, for most of the country, “the understanding seems to be: We voted for a magic president, and yet things aren’t magical. We need another magic president.” Again and again, as his poll numbers dropped, President Obama responded by booking TV time to give yet another magical speech. It’s not surprising that Obama puts so much stock in the power of rhetoric; after all, a stirring speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention launched him onto the political scene. And so, repeatedly, it was “back to the well.”

Healy, Gene (2012-10-17). False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency (Kindle Locations 1360-1364). Cato Institute. Kindle Edition.

“It’s Not about Him: “The continuity across presidencies is striking,” Eric Posner and Adrian Vermuele point out in their 2011 book Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic: Richard Nixon respected and advanced liberal Great Society programs. Carter supported deregulation before Reagan did; under Reagan, government spending continued its advance. . . . Bush and Obama’s policies toward the financial crisis were similar. . . . Even Obama’s health care plan resembled plans endorsed by major Republican figures at early periods. . . . [And] Obama has retained the main features of virtually every counterterror tool used by the Bush administration. In this picture, “the influence of partisan differences is muted,” they suggest. Which is an understatement.”

(Healy, Gene (2012-10-17). False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency (Kindle Locations 1542-1549). Cato Institute. Kindle Edition.)

“And yet there’s something eerily mechanical in the way the modern state steadily expands regardless of which party or president holds the office. Our government has become a runaway train— and presidential elections increasingly look like a struggle to determine who gets to sit in the front cab and pretend he’s driving.”

(Healy, Gene (2012-10-17). False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency (Kindle Locations 1557-1559). Cato Institute. Kindle Edition.)

“The constitutional scholar Charles Black once explained: The powers of Congress are adequate to the control of every national interest of any importance, including all those with which the president might, by piling inference on inference, be thought to be entrusted. And underlying all the powers of Congress is the appropriations power, the power that brought the kings of England to heel. “My classes think I am trying to be funny,” Professor Black continued, “when I say that, by simple majorities,” Congress could shrink the White House staff to one secretary and that with a two-thirds vote, “Congress could put the White House up at auction.” (33) But Professor Black wasn’t kidding: Congress has the power to do all that if it so decides. And if Congress can sell the White House, surely it can defund illegal wars and rein in a runaway bureaucracy.”

(Healy, Gene (2012-10-17). False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency (Kindle Locations 1707-1714). Cato Institute. Kindle Edition.)

“The public is rationally ignorant about politics, and it’s probably asking too much to expect the ordinary voter to go to the polls with the defense of our constitutional order in mind. But the increasing tendency toward Red Team/ Blue Team tribalism among the electorate and political elites is making the dream of downsizing the Imperial Presidency even harder. Paradoxically, partisanship is the lifeblood of the “bipartisan Imperial Presidency.”

Most Americans see the presidency through a partisan lens, darkly. If forced to think about it, we recognize that the office has become a constitutional monstrosity— at once menacing and ineffective. But in the main, we only start worrying about the massive concentration of power in the executive branch when we don’t like the faction that currently holds the scepter and the crown.”

(Healy, Gene (2012-10-17). False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency (Kindle Locations 1724-1730). Cato Institute. Kindle Edition.)

“…two long-term trends could improve our chances of “right-sizing” the presidency.

The first is America’s declining dominance abroad. America’s increasing global role in the 20th century and its unrivaled supremacy after the collapse of the Soviet Union helped drive the Imperial Presidency’s growth. As neoconservative luminary Charles Krauthammer wrote in 1987: Superpower responsibilities inevitably encourage the centralization and militarization of authority. . . . And politically, imperial responsibility demands imperial government, which naturally encourages an imperial presidency, the executive being (in principle) a more coherent and decisive instrument than its legislative rival. (35)

As the 21st century progresses, though, the United States is likely to distance itself from those responsibilities— and, perhaps, from the domineering presidency they enabled.”

(Healy, Gene (2012-10-17). False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency (Kindle Locations 1770-1778). Cato Institute. Kindle Edition.)

“What’s more, the end of our misconceived globocop role won’t throw the world into bloody anarchy. Harvard’s Steven Pinker notes that “global violence has fallen steadily since the middle of the twentieth century,” with the number of battle deaths in interstate wars declining “from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade.” (39) Hard as it is to recognize, given our catastrophe-obsessed media, we live in a world that’s increasingly secure.”

(Healy, Gene (2012-10-17). False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency (Kindle Locations 1798-1802). Cato Institute. Kindle Edition.)

I found this assertion about declining violence very curious and pursued some inquiry.  It appears to be arguable.

Here is the Pinker reference and links: Steven Pinker, “A History of Violence,”  http:// www.edge.org/ 3rd_culture/ pinker07/ pinker07_index.html.

(Healy, Gene (2012-10-17). False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency (Kindle Locations 1880-1882). Cato Institute. Kindle Edition.)

(Edge.org appears to be quite a cerebral site in its own right, not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Ross Douthat’s rebuttal to Pinker:


A link in Douthat’s column led me to a list of the 21 worst atrocities in human history at necrometrics.com.  Isn’t THAT special.  Necrometrics.com is a curious site compiling estimates of death from wars and violence throughout history.  Not the most savory subject but noteworthy considering man’s continued inhumanity to man.

All this is an aside to Healy’s theme.  I do take exception with “…we live in a world that’s increasingly secure.”  REALLY!?

“Partisan fervor and cults of personality are the enemies of sober judgment. It’s skepticism, not passion, we need when evaluating potential presidents, lest we get swept away and wind up ashamed of ourselves in the morning.”

(Healy, Gene (2012-10-17). False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency (Kindle Locations 1852-1853). Cato Institute. Kindle Edition.)

““America’s soul” doesn’t need saving, but our constitutional order is an unholy mess. Redemption can only begin when we turn away from false idols.”

(Healy, Gene (2012-10-17). False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency (Kindle Locations 1860-1862). Cato Institute. Kindle Edition.)

If you were hoping to find here the real Barack Obama, fuhgeddaboutit.  (Forget about it.) If you are seeking further evidence that your constitutional republic (the U.S. of A) is crumbling around you then you came to the right place.

This Amazon Kindle ebook is an easy, inexpensive read, $3.43 as I write, about 92 print-equivalent pages.  It is written in plain, non-rocket science English, for those of us less-cognisant cognoscenti in Rio Lindo, for which I’m always grateful.  Several books written on the subject during the last 40+ years are referenced for those inclined to in-depth pursuit of the topic.

Kindle is a useful format for e-reading.  I have the app on my Macbook Pro laptop, iPad2, and iPhone5.  I read portions of this book on all 3 (Kindle syncs the ‘farthest point read’ over ‘the Cloud’).  You can make bookmarks, highlights and notes of passages but I found only the Macbook easiest in which to copy and paste quotes to other note taking formats.  As you can see Kindle also provides the location from which you copied.  The ‘locations’ rather than page numbers was a bit cumbersome and took some getting used to.

Is this a MUST read?  No.  I give it 3 1/2 to 4 stars.  Someday I REALLY want to know what Obama was thinking.  I guess I’ll have to wait for his third autobiography.  It will likely still leave me wondering if he is putting me on.

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