The President's Two Bodies
96 Pages Posted: 31 Dec 2019 Last revised: 20 Jul 2020
Date Written: December 17, 2019
The President has “two bodies.” One body is personal, temporary, and singular. The other is impersonal, continuous, and composite. American public law reveals different perspectives on how to manage—but cannot escape—this central paradox. Our major disagreements and confusions about presidential power track what we might think of as the fault lines between these two bodies. An array of seemingly disparate debates on topics ranging from presidential impeachment, to the ownership of presidential papers, to the availability of executive privilege, to a presidential duty to defend statutes in court, to the legal status of presidential tweets, to the role of the White House counsel, to the nature of presidential intent, to the legal remedies available for presidential misconduct reflect this longstanding, ongoing ambivalence about the nature of the presidential office.
The goal of this article is to make the President’s two bodies central to American public law. Recognizing the two bodies provides analytical coherence to the structure of presidential power. It illuminates both our contestations over, and the constituted reality of the constitutional presidency. The President’s duality brings into view traces of a personal, charismatic authority simultaneously in deep tension with and fundamentally constitutive of the institutional presidency. It reconstructs seemingly far-flung aspects of American public law (ranging in form from Founding-era debates, to judicial decisions, to statutory enactments, to presidential norms) as a shared effort to negotiate the President’s two bodies. And it illuminates what is at stake—for presidential legitimacy, for governmental capacity, for checks and balances, and for our substantive constitutional commitments—in how public law handles this defining ambiguity. Ultimately, the legal lines connecting the two bodies cannot emerge from the duality itself. Rather, it is a normative project of public law to construct them—and to do so in furtherance of articulated substantive commitments. Even as the two-bodies prism reveals a crucial role for public law in constituting the office of the President, it shows as well the limits of law and legal methods in managing its central tension. Presidential charisma is both inseparable from American constitutionalism and itself governed—incompletely and provisionally—by choices that lawyers and jurists make about how to construct the President’s duality.
Keywords: presidency, presidential power, Article II, constitutional law
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