What is the President’s Greatest Responsibility?

06.30.11 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

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.