Federalist 70: How to Assess the Performance of a President

I want to clear up a common, and highly destructive, American misunderstanding about the president.

To start, take a moment and answer the following questions for yourself:

  1. What factors do you consider when judging whether or not a president has done a good job?

  2. What factors do you consider when you decide which presidential candidate to vote for?

  3. When the presidential candidates campaign, what kinds of issues do they talk about and what kinds of issues do you want them to talk about?

Thought about your answers? Good. Now, let’s think about these questions in terms of an average cashier.

Thought Experiment

If you were assessing the job performance of a cashier at a restaurant, what factors would you consider? Would you take into account their dishwashing ability or their cooking ability?

Probably not. Why?

Because neither of those activities are part of the cashier’s job description.

No, in order to accurately and fairly assess the cashier’s job performance you’d have to know exactly what their job requirements are and then judge their performance by how well they carried out those requirements, would you not?

So, you’d judge a cashier by how well they run a cash register, interact with customers etc.

Further, let’s say, it’s your job to interview candidates for the cashier position. One candidate comes in and starts boasting about how well he or she cooks, washes dishes, plays soccer or writes. All the skills the candidate names are irrelevant and have nothing to do with the job position at hand.

What would you do if you were the interviewer? Probably acknowledge that all those skills are well and good but have no bearing on whether or not the person is eligible for the role of cashier. All that really matters for the position is whether or not the individual can run a cash register well.

So, an outside viewer would question your skill as interviewer if you heard all of the irrelevant skills and considered them pertinent and influenced your decision to hire the individual.

Make sense? So, consider the three questions above when thinking about any individual operating in any job position.

  1. What factors do you consider when judging whether a not the individual has done a good job?

  2. What factors do you consider when you decide which job candidate to hire?

  3. When asking questions in an interview, what kinds of talents does the job candidate talk about and what kinds of talents do you want to hear about?

As It Pertains to the President

Friends, when it comes to the president, most Americans are highly incompetent job interviewers and assessors.

Consider Hamilton’s words from Federalist 70. In his paper, he argues for an active, vibrant single executor of law and further emphasizes the important role of the executor. He says, “A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.”

Interesting. So, here, Hamilton contends that, a feeble execution of law creates a feeble government. His logic is solid. If we create government to write laws that protect us and our private property, what good is that law if there is no one to make sure that it is enforced? Further, what good is the government if the person tasked with doing the enforcing is terrible at his job? Bad execution results in bad government. So, it’s important that we make sure that the individual tasked with such executive power, does a good job.

Hamilton continues: “Those politicians and statesmen who have been the most celebrated for the soundness of their principles and for the justice of their views, have declared in favor of a single Executive and a numerous legislature. They have with great propriety, considered energy as the most necessary qualification of the former, and have regarded this as most applicable to power in a single hand, while they have, with equal propriety, considered the latter as best adapted to deliberation and wisdom, and best calculated to conciliate the confidence of the people and to secure their privileges and interests.”

So, the executive should be an energetic individual, active in the execution of the laws that the legislature has, with deliberation and wisdom, written. This energetic execution of law is the executive’s job.

Let’s look at the work execute. It means: “Literally, to follow out or through. Hence, to perform; to do; to effect; to carry into complete effect; to complete; to finish. We execute a purpose, a plan, design or scheme; we execute a work undertaken, that is, we pursue it to the end.”

Hmmm, good to know. Further, what does the Constitution say about the president’s job? His job is to see the the laws be faithfully executed. So, his job is to see that the laws are “carried into complete effect; to finish; to pursue to an end”.

Assessing the President

So, when you assess the job of a sitting president, what do you consider? My guess is, you probably consider the economy, immigration, laws of various kinds, the handling of natural disasters or crisis, taxes, etc.

Am I right?

Do you ever consider analyzing how well he’s done his job? Do you consider how well he’s seen to it that the laws be faithfully executed?

Because, frankly, that’s all that matters. In the same way that we are only interested in how a cashier performs the role of being a cashier, we should only be interested in how well an executive performs the role of being an executive.

He holds a very important job. Hamilton says: “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy.”

But Americans never seem to assess the president on his job but rather the legislatives’ job. Think about all of the promises that presidential candidates make when running for president. Close to 99% of their promises have to do with issues about which they have no control.

And yet, we vote for the president based off of the fallacious notion that voting for a president who promises to do things only the legislature can do, will somehow result in a president who does what only the legislature can do. It’s no wonder that every president has let us down when finally in office. He made promises about things that were not in his job description in the first place and we judge him off of a job description that is not his.

Hamilton’s Take in Federalist 70

Hamilton spends the bulk of Federalist 70 working to dispel the notion that the executive power should be paired with a council or should be broken up between two individuals. He argues vehemently against this notion, his primary argument the following: it would dramatically decrease our ability to judge the performance of the executive. Hamilton says: “But one of the weightiest objections to a plurality in the Executive, and which lies as much against the last as the first plan, is, that it tends to conceal faults and destroy responsibility.

Hamilton argues that “the ingredients which constitute energy in the Executive are, first, unity; secondly, duration; thirdly, an adequate provision for its support; fourthly, competent powers.” His primary focus for the article is the support of a unified executive. In other words, he argues that all of the power to execute law should reside in one man, not many men or a counsel of men. There need not be deliberation amongst multiple executives about how to execute the law. Such deliberation would cause delay and severely weaken the government while also making it far more difficult to assign blame or hold an executive responsible for failure to execute the laws faithfully.

No, the legislative branch is the branch where all of the deliberation and debate takes place, after which, the agreed upon law must be executed by the executive, swiftly and actively.

The important point here, of course, is the fact that the executive is tasked only with and assessed only by, the execution of existing law.

(Consider for a moment: how many presidents have refused to execute certain laws because they did not agree with the party who passed the law? In doing so, they violate their one role as executor of law. I believe the refusal to execute Congressional law should only be done when the executive believes such a law is unconstitutional but not simply because he does not like the law.)


How far away have Americans drifted from this basic understanding of the executive?

I challenge you, my readers, to take a hard look at how you assess presidents or presidential candidates. Do you ask yourself, “How well did the president execute the law?” and judge him based off of the answer to that question? Or do you assess him by a variety of other jobs that really have nothing to do with his job as president?

You see, we have to get away from ascribing to the president more power than he possesses, because in doing so, we convince other Americans that his job is more than it is while providing the president the perfect excuse to take on more power than he is Constitutionally allowed to possess.

It’s our job to be both the educated interviewer and the educated job assessor of our presidents. We should approach such a job soberly and assess the president by his actual job description.

Hamilton says, near the end of Federalist 70, “I clearly concur in opinion, in this particular, with a writer whom the celebrated Junius pronounces to be ‘deep, solid, and ingenious,’‘ that `the executive power is more easily confined when it is ONE‘; that it is far more safe there should be a single object for the jealousy and watchfulness of the people; and, in a word, that all multiplication of the Executive is rather dangerous than friendly to liberty.”

In other words, implicit in this statement is the expectation that the people will be watchful over the executive to make sure that he does his job correctly. And the power of the executive is unified and given to one individual so that we are able to more easily assess how well this individual fulfills such a role.

But, we have to be educated enough to know and understand what such a role entails before we can judge, punish and vote accordingly.

The Liberty Belle

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