Presidents Day is the holiday form of those inane calls to “respect the office even if you don’t like the person” which we always hear from the winning side after each Election Day. Less respect — less aggrandizement and less sentimentality and less unfettered authority exercised without regard for rule of law and common decency — is what the Oval Office really needs, even if you do like the person.
If we must have a Presidents Day, its purpose ought to be a review of the office’s legal limitations and historical failures, an opportunity for reflection and critique which in inaugural years will be a much-needed antidote to the unrepublican (small r!) spectacle that is the inauguration festivities and the grotesque governmental muscle-flexing that is the “first 100 days.” Presidents Day should be an opportunity to think not about what we like or dislike in the sitting president but about the scope of the presidential institution itself.
As for George Washington, the president whom Presidents Day specifically commemorates, I think he’d be fine with the downgrade. Though far from consistent on this point, Washington at least in theory understood the risk of an over-powerful executive. He was famously reluctant to be president himself or to imbue the office with “even the appearance of pomp or vain parade,” asking that when he arrived in the temporary capital city of New York he be accorded “a quiet entry devoid of ceremony.” In his second inaugural address, which lasted all of two paragraphs, Washington defined the office as merely that of “chief magistrate.” It is a laughable description today.