Politics for Middle Children
Hail to the Chief?
This post is the third of a three-part series on the branches of government.
The Buck Stops Here. That’s the placard that famously sat on President Harry Truman’s desk during his tenure as leader of the free world. Over the course of American history, other presidents have adopted similar stances—like George W. Bush’s insistence that he was “the decider” in 2006.
Most would agree the buck should indeed stop with the president, but as the country has evolved, his power and influence over its direction has grown exponentially. Through bureaucratic bloat, the invocation of implied powers, and a willingness for legislators to abdicate their lawmaking responsibilities, the executive branch no longer resembles the dutiful public servant that the founders had intended.
Moreover, the branch’s insidious power grab has, over time, created a presidential role so large and unmanageable, it destins anyone in the Oval Office to fail and attracts a deepening pool of the country’s most narcissistic and unstable candidates.
How can we return the executive branch back to the people?
His Majesty, The President
We all know the story: determined to break free from the monarchy’s oppressive reign, a group of farmers began a revolution, eventually winning their freedom and beginning the greatest experiment in self-governance the world had ever seen. In the place of a king, there would be an executive with limited power that could be checked by two other branches of government. A perfect union was formed.
What’s often omitted from that bedtime tale is that many founding fathers—people like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton—didn’t agree with the idea of a weak executive branch at all. Hamilton pushed for presidents to be appointed for life, and Adams wished to refer to the officeholder as “His Majesty.” Some historians believe there’s even evidence that Continental Congress President Nathaniel Gorham offered to install Prince Henry of Prussia as King of the United States during the particularly chaotic period between Independence and the Constitutional Convention in 1787.1
But more radical founders like Thomas Jefferson pushed back against the federalists, and the resulting Article II of the Constitution affords very little power to the president. These are often called expressed powers, among which include being the Commander in Chief of the military, the power to grant pardons and veto legislation, and the ability to nominate ambassadors, judges, and cabinet members. Most of these powers come with checks and balances, such as the judicial confirmation process or the ability for Congress to override a veto with a 2/3 majority vote.
However, the president also has a set of implied powers, which are actions he can take that are not explicitly laid out in the Constitution. While some implied powers are obvious—like the President’s ability to dismiss a cabinet member—others aren’t so clear. For example, it’s Congress that has the power to declare war on another country, but as Commander In Chief, the president has discretion over committing troops. This implied power allows the president to bypass Congressional approval and deploy military force as he sees fit—which is exactly what he’s done in every US conflict since World War II.
Desperate Times, Expanding Powers
How do these implied powers come to be? Typically, they’re amassed during tumultuous times that require quick action. Abraham Lincoln, often looked upon fondly as one of our most modest and successful presidents, suspended habeas corpus and authorized military trials of civilians during the Civil War. During WWII, Franklin Roosevelt authorized the censoring of mail and initiated orders that led to the internment of Japanese Americans. But presidents have also begun to adopt similar strategies in order to fulfill campaign promises during peacetime. President Donald Trump, for example, declared a national emergency in 2019 to access funding for his promised border wall between the US and Mexico.
The last four presidents have been strategic in their expansion of power, particularly through the use of executive order. All presidents have issued at least one executive order2, and many have proven to be fruitful—Jefferson’s authorization of the Louisiana Purchase, or Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. But when it comes to executive actions, it’s not the numbers that tell the story, but the content with which they deal. Despite significant criticism, George W. Bush used executive orders to create Guantanamo Bay, a detention camp that’s held suspected terrorists without trial for almost 20 years. Frustrated by Congress’ inability to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2013—what’s often referred to as the “Gang of Eight,”—President Barack Obama took it upon himself to pen an executive order that legalized the presence of nearly 4 million undocumented workers in the US. The move was widely criticized as a sweeping overreach that threatened the country’s separation of powers, and was ultimately blocked by the Supreme Court.
This increased intrusion of the president has largely come as a result of Congress deferring to him. Lawmakers hand over power because they want to stay in office and avoid responsibility for unpopular policies. The problem with this tactic is that once a president exercises an implied power through an executive order or other form of memorandum, his successor is unlikely to return that power.
As the country has increased in both size and complexity, the role of the executive branch has shifted to accommodate it. A growing number of federal agencies were created over the 20th century to regulate new innovations, including the Federal Communications Commission, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Federal Reserve—all of which fall under the executive branch. And since the president is the chief executive, he can issue directives to these agencies without any real oversight, like President Bill Clinton did when he ordered the FDA to curb the tobacco industry’s targeting of children with advertising or when President Richard Nixon advised the FBI to halt investigations into the Watergate break-in.
As with implied powers, once these executive entities are created, few are removed once they’re no longer of use. The National Resources Conservation Service, for example, is an arm of the Department of Agriculture that was created to eliminate soil erosion on farms in 1933 following the Dust Bowl. Though it currently employs nearly 12,000 people, the US Government Accountability Office frequently reports there are no meaningful differences between areas treated by the NRCS and those that are not.
Too Big To Fill?
The byproduct of this executive growth and erosion of the separation of powers has created a role that’s simply too large for one person to adequately fill. It’s one that requires a high degree of political skills, vision, and management. But the public scrutiny is often so intense, it keeps qualified candidates away—and it’s largely of our own doing.
According to a Harvard Law Today article, the founders originally intended the president to limit his interactions with the public to avoid demagoguery, preferring instead that he send policy recommendations to Congress in writing. This tradition held for nearly 100 years—First Lady Sarah Polk was so worried her husband James wouldn’t be recognized that she asked the Marine Band to play “Hail to the Chief” when he entered the room. But the 20th century and President Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit” brought a new level of public fame to the position that would eventually become more important than the job itself.
The 1960 presidential debates between then-Vice President Nixon and handsome Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy were the first ones ever televised, and they marked a turning point in the public’s perception of the presidency. While those who listened to the debate on the radio felt Nixon had a strong command of the debate, the voters who watched it on television claimed Kennedy had won, citing Nixon’s dour expression and profuse sweating as off-putting. Some historians attribute Kennedy’s charming demeanor as the key to his narrow victory. Two years later, Nixon wrote in his memoirs: “I should have remembered that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’”
Since then, the president’s public image has superseded his policy, at least during the campaign. According to MIT Associate Professor Chappell Lawson, a large number of Americans judge the character of a political candidate by physical characteristics, including their jawline and eyebrows. Their folksiness is also important, as evidenced by Boston beermaker Sam Adams’ 2000 poll that asked voters which presidential candidate they’d rather have a beer with. The poll correctly predicted that Bush would defeat Democratic candidate Al Gore—by a small margin.
Over time, the candidates have taken this shift into account by pandering to the masses with talk show interviews and TV appearances. Clinton famously donned a pair of sunglasses and played saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992 to grab youth votes; 17 presidential candidates have made cameos on Saturday Night Live. “For decades, we’ve run presidential candidates through humiliating marathons, making them divulge embarrassing family secrets on afternoon talk shows, trade scripted barbs with Lettermans and Lenos, and mock themselves on comedy shows like Saturday Night Live,” Rolling Stone political correspondent Matt Taibbi wrote in a 2018 newsletter. “We systematically removed issue politics from races and gradually degraded the office, training voters to think of presidential candidates as boobs who would do whatever reporters asked of them.” It’s a trend that has only accelerated with the use of social media, where users favor image and attention over substance.
The Impossible Task
The truth is, no one man or woman can possibly represent the varied, competing interests of 330 million people. With each administration, a new expectation is set at the incoming president’s feet. “The emotional burden of these responsibilities is almost unfathomable,” John Dickerson wrote in a 2018 article for The Atlantic. “He must live with the paradox that he is the most powerful man in the world, yet is powerless to achieve many of his goals.” Kennedy echoed this sentiment in 1961, when he said he didn’t realize “how heavy and constant” the office’s burdens would be. Even Trump, whose bluster is tough to match, told Reuters “I thought it would be easier,” 100 days into his term.
This responsibility is exacerbated by what voters are looking for in a president. According to a Pew Research poll, 55 percent of Americans are looking for a candidate with “new ideas”—31 percent stated they were LESS likely to vote for a candidate who had experience as an elected official in Washington. And if presidents tried to read the tea leaves of approval polls, they’d get whiplash. In the last 100 years, Gallup approval polls have fluctuated wildly over the course of a presidential term—George W. Bush held a 90 percent approval rating following 9/11; by 2008, it was a mere 25 percent.
But things could certainly be done to lessen the impact. In a broad sense, it’s become clear that the Constitution does not adequately address the country’s increasingly complex needs. A “government 2.0” overhaul is probably in order to restore the founders’ vision, and part of that could be the codification of the implied powers that presidents have been collecting like prizes for the last 250 years.
A more manageable task could be to streamline the executive branch, taking heed of GAO reports and making tough decisions about agencies that no longer make economic sense.
Voters, too, have a role to play. Rather than considering which candidate they’d like to drink a beer with, Americans could evaluate the future president by his ability and experience with selecting and managing a team. Delegation is key to the presidency, and a candidate should have a strong vision and control of the people who report directly to them. Otherwise, we end up with a president like Jimmy Carter, who was such a famous micromanager that he reportedly handled the White House tennis court’s schedule.
Often, it’s difficult to gauge the effectiveness of a president while he’s in office. Much of his action can’t be judged until years—even decades—later, when the gloss of history has been applied. The truly great leaders were the ones who were pragmatic enough to see what the country needed—even if those things went against their personal values. President Lyndon Johnson championed some of the most important civil rights legislation in American history, but anecdotal evidence suggests he held quite racist beliefs.
Ultimately, the executive is the only branch that can actually move the country in a new direction with regard to tone and trust. They should instill trust, but also respect for the office. Tolerating ad hominem attacks from fellow politicians—as President Joe Biden recently did from Republican congresswomen during the State of The Union address—undermines not only the president, but the office itself.
Reforming the presidency is a difficult task, because the framers were so vague about what the job’s expectations were. But that’s always been the case. “I greatly apprehend that my Countrymen will expect too much for me,” Washington wrote his friend in 1789. Even then, Washington knew the buck stopped with him.
Called the “Prussian Scheme,” Gorham reportedly sent a letter to Prince Henry asking him to rule and restore order that came from the political crises that occurred during the latter years of the Articles of Confederation, such as Shay’s Rebellion. Some believe the natural-born citizen clause in the Constitution was an attempt to quell rumors of European royalty being invited to assume a monarchical role.
The only exception was William Henry Harrison (1841), who died 31 days into his presidency.