I have a theory — that we are living through the end of the “Imperial Presidency”, with the accompanying restoration of the Congress as the center of power in federal government.
“The Imperial Presidency”. Those who have watched as many presidencies as I have (or more) know that term. It has been around for the entirety of our modern presidency — which I put at all presidents starting with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1933 inauguration, in the midst of the Great Depression. It was FDR who swung the presidency like a club, sweeping across the economy and the “general welfare” of a nation in dire straits. FDR wasn’t always attentive to the Constitution along the way, and met resistance from conservatives, the opposition (Republican) party and businesses. But his New Deal reforms are entrenched in government programs to this day — and the presidential power that he exercised before and during World War II set the tone for the Imperial Presidency that continued long after he died.
All presidencies since FDR have tried, with varying degrees of success, to deal with the challenge of the Imperial Presidency. We’ve had other Imperials — JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, W and Obama. All of them were accused — correctly — of expanding the dominance of the White House. In most cases, Congress pushed back hard and SCOTUS blocked the way, but the popular perception, at home and internationally, was that of a dominating, celebrity POTUS.
With 45, it’s different — significantly different. First, he is showing himself, unsurprisingly, to be utterly incompetent and ignorant, and has surrounded himself with friends who are equally ignorant, equally incompetent or just too obsequious to resist him. Add to that the departure, by voluntary or forced resignation, of the knowledge leadership in the executive branches, and the slow pace at which that leadership is being restored. The executive branch is in the hands of idiots – and that is widely accepted to be true, at least for the time being.
Second, importantly, Congress is all Republican. This gives Congress the ability to do whatever they want and to succeed in demanding that their fellow party member in the White House go along with it. They are soon to move SCOTUS into their camp as well (because they can), taking down any final barrier to Congressional “overreach”.
This creates the framework for a very powerful Congress that can lord over a much-weakened presidency. The Republican Congress has been testing its strength against the Obama presidency and, by any measure, succeeded beyond their expectations. And while he was frustrated often, Obama was a president with enormous personal strength of will and intellect. He could wield a law-making scalpel to get some things done because he understands the law, if not the politics of legislating. And he surrounded himself with like-minded people, equally knowledgeable.
By contrast, Obama’s replacement is a dolt both in the law and in legislating (or even in simple management) and his posse does not make up for that weakness.
So the stage is set for a dominating Congress to tower over a much-diminished White House in a way that we haven’t seen in 75 years or more. And that shift may be long-lasting. I expect the “Imperial Presidency” to be a concept shuffled off to history, replaced by a presidency marked by weakness at home and abroad.
One very significant implication of this weakened presidency is the role of “Command-in-Chief.” Can a strong Congress permit the president to exercise the military as his predecessors (W and Obama) could? They passed “Authorization for Use of Military Force” (AUMF) for W, then essentially let it continue for Obama. With a weak president — especially one who is desperate to demonstrate his self-imagined “strength” — the AUMF is a very dangerous weapon. I expect Congress to pull it back and restore its constitutional power “to declare war”.
A second implication of this weakened presidency is how the United States is perceived internationally. If the US — both in Congress and among the people — do not see a powerful president, how will foreign nations relate to the US? Will they invite the president to a state visit and to negotiate treaties if they do not see the president as a true leader? Perhaps the Speaker of the House will rise in importance internationally as the true leader of the United States, in the same way that the Prime Minister is viewed in parliamentary governments. Perhaps the president will become head of state in title only, in the view of our allies and enemy nations alike.
BOTTOM LINE: Presidential elections of the future will mean far less and have far less real impact than the bi-annual Congressional races. Focus.
Image credit: An East View of Gray’s Ferry, near Philadelphia, with the Triumphal Arches, &c. erected for the Reception of General Washington, April 20, 1789 , line engraving (1789) by James Trenchard
(Courtesy of the Library of Congress)