Can You Name the U.S. President?

Everyone who is even vaguely attentive to American politics, and even half-honest about the evidence of his own senses, knows that Joe Biden is no more serving as the active president of the United States — the “here” at which, as Harry Truman said, the buck stops — than I am. That is to say, everyone can see as clear as day that the current man called “Mr. President” is miles away from any semblance of the mental competence necessary to preside over the most profound and personal duties and obligations of the U.S. presidency, such as signing off on legislation and major spending bills, directing foreign policy, negotiating with both friendly and hostile heads of state, and of course serving as the official custodian of the nuclear button. 

To be clear, everyone always knew, the American federal government being the behemoth it has become, that there is no president who could be expected to personally oversee all those presidential duties singlehandedly. But everyone always understood, and took for granted, that after all the delegations of authority, all the deference to advisors and experts and lobbyists and whatnot, there would always be a moment, when push came to shove, when the final “yes” or “no” on all these matters had to be spoken by someone, and that this someone would be the man in the Oval Office. For one simple example out of a thousand, Ronald Reagan did not write the famous “Tear down this wall” speech, but the speech, we all felt and knew, expressed Reagan’s will. He would never have spoken it in public if it hadn’t, and you could hear his conviction in his delivery. The same, for that matter, can be said of the major speeches, decisions, and signatures of all the other presidents, Republican and Democrat, at least up to George W. Bush (and likely to some degree even to Barack Obama and Donald Trump), for better or for worse. Everyone knew, in other words, whose name was attached to these things in the end, and that this name deserved to be so attached, regardless of who was doing the heavy lifting or the nuanced wrangling over details before anything reached the president’s desk. The presidency is as much a process as it is a person, but the purpose of the process is to filter everything down to one specific person, an individual man who is elected by the people to serve as their representative in signing off on all the acts of the presidency-as-process, and whose name and voice everyone can identify, whose hand is on that nuclear button, whose word is final in sending those young people to war, and whose pen, practically speaking, is the final step in establishing a new federal budget or tax policy. George W. Bush signed off on the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Barack Obama signed off on the assault that killed Osama bin Laden. Jimmy Carter signed off on the attempted rescue of the American hostages in Iran. And on and on, through every presidency and every presidential decision, good, bad, or indifferent. Everyone has always known these things, and more or less taken them for granted. Harry Truman himself, who most famously touted the president’s role as the final decision-maker with the motto emblazoned on the well-known sign on his desk, lived up to the role embodied in that motto in the most monumental way any president ever could, in August 1945.

And today, everyone knows that this is no longer the case. Everyone knows that Joe Biden is simply not mentally fit to engage in such duties, and that there is no way in the world that his handlers and overseers, whoever they are, would let him serve as the “here” in Truman’s dictum, when it comes to war and peace, nuclear bombs, or any other significant matter of national security or national direction. In fact, I would guess that everyone agrees that it is best that no one is letting Biden have such authority, because everyone, on all sides of the political debate, knows that America and the world are less in danger of accidental catastrophe if a man in Biden’s state of mental deterioration is not permitted any control in such matters.

The problem is, if everyone knows that Biden is not making any of the final decisions, not performing any of the final sign-offs on anything of real importance, then does anyone know who is? Where is Truman’s “here” to be found, today? This is not a rhetorical question or a caprice. The United States federal government operates (nominally) according to a founding law, a constitution, and that constitution defines a specific and important role for a president, who is to be one, universally identifiable, human being, one elected to the office or temporarily (and officially, publicly) elevated to that role during a crisis in which the elected president is incapacitated. The man currently serving with the title of president is not competent, and is surely not being permitted, to perform that constitutionally assigned role. So who is performing it, and under what authority?

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