Obama, Trump, and the Presidency

John Rabe

Following the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States in November, millions who voted differently took to their safe spaces and fainting couches for refuge from “trigger warnings,” “microaggressions,” and all other manner of perceived evils that would soon be besieging them.

Comedian Stephen Colbert tweeted, “It feels like we’re trying to avoid the apocalypse, and half the country is voting for the asteroid.”

Singer Miley Cyrus tweeted a video of herself unsuccessfully choking back tears as the election results rolled in.

Comedian Amy Schumer lamented to America, “Well you’ve gotten what you asked for and now you can watch the sky open up. Literally. [Hillary Clinton] would have protected you. Today we grieve tomorrow we begin again.”

While such reactions might seem a bit overwrought (and at least one celebrity does not have a solid grasp on the term “literally”), perhaps these histrionic celebrities are onto something. Many on the conservative side of the so-called culture wars can remember feeling much the same way when Barack Obama was elected twice to the presidency, and not without reason. Perhaps there’s a unifying principle underlying this foreboding feeling of doom following presidential elections that don’t go our way—one that can bring together people on both sides of the cultural divide.

What is that unifying principle?

Perhaps it is a dawning realization on both sides of the political aisle that the presidency is entirely too powerful and ought to be much less so.

In a free, constitutional republic, it simply does not make sense for so much to ride on the winner of the presidency. And indeed, it was not always so. While the workings of the presidency have always been of interest to Americans, the practical role of the president in the life of most Americans began and ended with his commander-in-chief responsibilities as the nation waged war.

However, beginning in the early 20th century, two factors began to come into play. First was the growth of the federal government itself. Modern Americans might find it hard to believe, but before 1913, there was not even a federal income tax. The government was manageable enough that it did not need to dig into the average American’s paycheck in order to sustain itself. For most Americans, their experience with the federal government was mainly through the use of the U.S. Postal Service.

The second factor (which went part-in-parcel with the first) was the growth of the power of the executive branch of the government. As the government began to encroach into more areas of life, the president, seen as being at the helm, assumed greater and greater powers. This developed into what some have called “The Cult of the Presidency,” in which the president is treated in the same way as a royal figure might be in other countries. For instance, though it is virtually impossible to imagine now, virtually all State of the Union addresses before 1913 were merely delivered to Congress in writing, without all the surrounding pomp and circumstance of today’s “State of the Union” messages before joint sessions of Congress and broadcast to all the American people. But as the executive branch accrued more and more power to itself (seen in Woodrow Wilson’s administrative state, Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” and Lyndon Johnson’s so-called “Great Society,” among others), the president wielded greater and greater policy weight—policy weight that should have rightly rested in the hands of Congress, the people’s direct representatives.

America’s founders deliberately designed the gears of the federal government to turn slowly. They envisioned three co-equal branches of government, each providing checks and balances for the others. But instead of what the founders intended, we now have a politicized Supreme Court that implements its own policy preferences in place of those of the people. Because the president chooses the nominees to the Court, the presidency essentially holds power over two of the three branches—and a meek Congress has largely abdicated its own role during recent decades. This means that a president can now get a lot done very quickly by fiat. He does not need to do the hard work of persuading the people or their elected representatives about a particular policy. He simply needs to push it through by administrative force, enlisting the help of his hand-picked judges to make it hold up.

This may seem pleasing when the president happens to share your own political persuasion. But it becomes cause for great angst when an opposing president holds the reins—thus, the great 2016-17 Trump meltdown on the left. Suddenly, the idea that the president can simply impose his will because he has “a pen and a phone” became quite troubling to those who were thrilled about it only a months before.

This is where liberals and conservatives can now find common ground. Nobody should ever have to have a nervous breakdown over who is elected president of the United States. The office has become too powerful. If liberals do not want to see Donald Trump wield unprecedented power, then they should help conservatives scale down the scope of the presidency. The limits on the presidency should be restored, as both sides—liberals now lamenting President-elect Trump and conservatives who watched President Obama run roughshod over the Constitution for eight years—seek to return the office to its enumerated boundaries.

The president was never intended to be a king by another name. He was never supposed to have the power of vast regulatory authority, involvement in massive sections of the national economy via executive order, or the ability to attack his enemies through taxation (such as with the IRS’s targeting of conservative groups under President Obama).

George Washington, America’s first president, is notable in human history for being one of the few leaders to voluntarily turn away power from himself. After serving two terms as president, he rejected the chance to serve a third. In his Farewell Address to the nation, he wrote words we would be well-served to remember today, whatever our political leanings. Washington warned:

It is important . . . that the habits of thinking in a free Country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective Constitutional spheres; avoiding in the exercise of the Powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. (Farewell Address, George Washington, 1796, emphasis added)

After eight years of rampant executive abuse under President Obama, and with liberals now quaking at the prospect of a Trump Administration, let us band together to do some real long-term good to the republic: shrinking the presidency back down to size.