Nearly 225 years ago, steps from my office at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the role, rights and responsibilities of the American president were mapped out at the Constitutional Convention. Despite wide-ranging disagreements and far-reaching possibilities–with some plans calling for a three-person executive committee in place of a president—the delegates took just four months to reach consensus on the presidency and myriad issues to draft a remarkable document that endures as the bedrock of our democracy.
Cut to 2012, as we near our 57th presidential election. As the power and status of the United States has increased in the 225 years since the Constitution was signed, what’s at stake every four years has only risen. Division and partisanship is to be expected in the heat of a presidential campaign, bringing to mind George Washington’s admonition against political parties in his farewell address. But nowadays, we seem to be in a perpetual election cycle, where divisiveness has stunted even the most basic day-to-day running of government.
This dysfunction is evident in the uproar over President Obama’s recess appointments—an issue that hits close to home for me. Before assuming leadership of the National Constitution Center, I served for five years as head of the Corporation for National and Community Service under President George W. Bush—a position now vacant because the Senate has not confirmed President Obama’s nomination for the post.
Leaving the Corporation without a head has contributed to the political embattlement of an agency that only recently enjoyed solid bipartisan support. Established by the first President Bush and reorganized by his Democratic successor, President Clinton, the Corporation plays a crucial role in national service, providing infrastructure for such organizations as Habitat for Humanity, the Salvation Army and the Special Olympics. It also provides training and job experience for millions of Americans through AmeriCorps.
My own nomination as head of this agency languished for months after President Bush submitted my name to the Senate in 2003, with approval coming only in the final minutes before the Senate adjourned for its winter recess. Vexing as it seemed at the time, in the current climate we can only wish for such efficiency—and forget about the shared vision and purpose shown by the delegates who shaped our Constitution 225 years ago.
It saddens me to witness the deterioration of this organization and others. But in the end it is also deeply motivating.
What’s required to fix governmental dysfunction is more citizens taking advantage of their freedoms as guaranteed by the Constitution. The work we’re doing at the Center during the Constitution’s 225th anniversary empowers citizens to do just that. This is especially critical in an election year. The democratic process outlined 225 years ago provides us with the power to shape and reshape our government. Freedom is calling. It’s up to us to answer that call.
Pledge your commitment to freedom and active citizenship by signing the 225th anniversary Constitution here.