Presidential Power

Having demonstrated by his surprise victory that the electorate as a whole is not able to ensure that a president is up to the task, it now is Congress’s job to rein in presidential power, if it can. One need look no further back than Christmas Eve, when President Donald Trump’s questioning staff about whether he could fire the chairman of the Federal Reserve took the Dow down about 3 percent in one day. 

Wall Street’s ups and downs notwithstanding, the fact that the president’s musings could cause share prices to tank shows that there is too much resting on a single person’s shoulders. Along the same lines, that a president could alone order the withdrawal of troops from a war zone — or their going in — presents far too great a risk for international stability. The consequences of an unhinged president ordering a nuclear strike on a foreign country are almost beyond comprehension.

Americans have gotten used to an imperial presidency, even if there was tension about it at the start. George Washington set the tone in 1796, when he chose not to seek a third term. Yet it was not until the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951 that the two-term limit was official.

The authors of the Constitution placed the sole right to declare war in Congress, but from Theodore Roosevelt onward, presidents have gained power, particularly overseas. With the start of the Cold War in the late 1940s, more authority has shifted to the White House, even in times of peace. The historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. observed, “by the early 1970s the American president had become on issues of war and peace the most absolute monarch (with the possible exception of Mao Tse-tung of China) among the great powers of the world.”

The 9/11 attacks pushed presidential power to an even-greater level, resulting in warrantless searches, terrorist suspects tortured in secret prisons, and a largely unsupervised global war on terror, which began under George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and expanded under President Obama. Even now, for good or ill, most of the country’s regulations come not from the states but are controlled by the president.

Congress has not seemed eager to put the executive branch back into its intended coequal constitutional box. This may have a lot to do with the Oval Office’s influence on fund-raising, making the individual politicians dependent on a president’s good will. This, as the historian Eric Posner has pointed out, has “given the president various blank checks to regulate.”

He and others have argued that the fix will not come from Congress, nor the courts, nor the states because the complexity and speed of national affairs and a volatile economy require an effective executive. That has left the party system, the media, and the internet, and, by extension, the people, the only remaining check on presidential power, which, in the end, is what the founders intended. That is not an excuse for Congress to punt; each senator and representative must be willing to look past his or her personal ambition and ask himself or herself if an unbridled presidency is worth the chaos it creates.