Conor Friedersdorf returned to a favored subject of his last week in a post that I do recommend. Friedersdorf makes the conservative/libertarian argument that the presidency is too big for one person, and that therefore the federal government should do fewer things.
That's a good argument for people to hear; liberals often underappreciate just how difficult it is to actually choose and implement policies to attack the problems they see as needing solutions. Which is not to say that liberals have no good replies, of course. But I'm not going to resolve any of that in a blog post!
No, what I want to talk about is the capacity of the executive. And, here, I think Friedersdorf is mistaken. Indeed, one can see his mistake in the title of his post: "The Presidency is 'To Big For One Man.'" Yes, it is too large for one person -- which is why, basically from the time of Harry Truman, the presidency has grown to include (depending on how one counts it) hundreds, or even thousands, of people.
It's true that as recently as the 1930s, we elected a president. Now, we elect an entire presidency. Moreover, while it used to be that these unelected/elected presidential assistants were apt to be longtime cronies of the president with few ties to their party (think Bob Haldeman or Hamilton Jordan), now they are usually longtime party professionals (such as Andy Card, Rahm Emanuel, or Pete Rouse). Why is that important? Because partisan elections generally work better; there's no realistic way for voters in 1968 to know who Haldeman and Ehrlichman were, but voters in 2008 could know that they were choosing between Team Democrat and Team Republican, without having to know who would wind up as second deputy chief-of-staff.
So one can make a case that the expanded presidency -- what political scientist John Hart calls the Presidential Branch of government -- is democratic. What of Friedersdorf's complaint, however? Well, the idea is that a large Presidential Branch allows the presidency to influence the numerous executive branch departments and agencies, and then the president can control the Presidential Branch. In practice, of course, both propositions are often tested, but generally I don't think that the evidence suggests that the job of president is no longer possible to do well -- it is difficult, but in my view George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and (perhaps, it's still early) Barack Obama seem to have achieved at least a somewhat adequate success at it (as did Ronald Reagan at times).
I've seen serious questions raised about how well the current style of the presidency works (if you're interested, in addition to me you should be reading Matthew Dickinson (here's a recent relevant post). And this sort of analysis can't really answer Friedersdorf's challenge, which at heart, I think, is ideological. But it's important, when thinking about the president and the presidency, to understand who does what, how its organized, and why. The basic idea is that the growth of the presidential branch, since its origins under FDR, has always been intended specifically to extend the capacity of the presidency. One can argue that it hasn't worked, but the very fact of its existence -- all those extra advisers to the president that Friedersdorf is concerned about -- is intended to be a feature, not a bug.