Sovereign Presidents' Day

Americans on Monday are observing Presidents' Day, another Western holiday Russians may want to adopt. In early 2012, when there will be enough former Russian presidents to make a selective Top-Two list, we could see Sovereign Presidents' Day proudly proclaimed here. In the meantime, perhaps Russians and Americans should use this day to reflect on the history of their highest offices and how the current elections may alter both.

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the holiday's principal honorees, are widely regarded as the best presidents in U.S. history. George W. Bush is widely regarded as one of the worst, his record of full-spectrum malfeasance rendering him the Warren Harding of a new millennium: "I am not fit for this office," confessed the oft-bewildered President Harding, "and never should have been here."

But how does the office evolve? Distinguished occupants, like Washington, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, mold and stretch the constitutionally defined presidency to meet the pressure of events and to suit their own visions. The undistinguished tend to leave things alone. The disastrous, as we have seen, opt for a "third way"-- recasting the office without a mandate or the consent of the other two branches of government.

The illegal detention and torture at Guantanamo and the use of presidential signing statements to vitiate acts of Congress are prime examples of an executive branch running amok. They represent "extravagant and unnecessary claims of presidential power," noted a Bush-appointed assistant attorney general who resigned in protest. For still-adjusting systems like Russia's, with limited presidential experience and a traditional bias toward individual power, such flagrant transgression of prescribed authority makes the current U.S. executive model one to avoid like the plague.

Russian leaders have a thousand-year record of claiming all the powers their offices can bear and many they can't –– a habit which has helped make Russian history the arduous slog it has been. The post-Soviet presidential model is as top-down as its tsarist and Soviet predecessors, yet to date sports only a fig-leaf rationale -- "sovereign democracy," a curious abstraction which seems ever more elusive the more people define it. The actual dicta of Russia's presidency are simpler: "Because I can," and "Try and stop me."

In short, neither of the 2008 models on display is something the democracy-minded should want the keys to. But what might the new model year offer?

Russians will soon see their chief executive's role redefined, as a new president -- and the prime minister who virtually invented him -- engage with the process reality of an administration theoretically dominated by the presidency. The country may initially get a kinder, gentler chief executive, content to push a social agenda of Putinism Lite, but what honeymoon lasts forever? And what will Russians do if they find their prime minister is a sort of Slavic Dick Cheney?

The U.S. Vice President's office has been the boiler room beneath the executive meltdown, as Cheney and co-conspirator David Addington have labored tirelessly to divert to the presidency new powers to "detain, interrogate, torture, wiretap and spy without congressional approval or judicial review," as U.S. public television reported. It is hard to see Putin and some attack lawyer mobilizing frightening new powers for Dmitry Medvedev, whose office hardly needs them. But what if state initiatives always come from the second deck, eventually making the Constitution, which Putin reveres so highly, a public (and international) joke? Stay tuned.

Bush's successor, in any case, must right a badly listing ship. Of the scenarios now available, a Barack Obama presidency may be the only one in which the office of chief executive gets an intensive, back-to-the-future revival effort.

Obama unabashedly seeks a presidency that combines inspiration and authority – something not seen since the early stages of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Johnson sought to use his cross-aisle savvy and the power of the office to expand and complete FDR's New Deal -- which has also served, at least nominally, as a major inspiration for Russia's "sovereign democracy."

If a President Obama can pick up the threads of Roosevelt and Johnson and, in the process, attract the interest of Russia's ever-industrious sovereignty formulators, perhaps we'll see a Presidents' Day here that truly rings democratic. It could happen -- things in Russia are either impossible or miraculous -- and the recognition of some common Russian-American institutional ground might be an early cross-cultural success as the U.S. presidency enters its Barack period.



Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.