It's not just Trump, the presidency is out of control (Rob Montz)
“It never lets up. Trump is a ubiquitous, suffocating presence in American life.” But he wasn’t the first president to get too big for his britches, “the modern presidency is the framers’ worst nightmare, a flatly unconstitutional concentration of power. [It has become] the driving force of dysfunction in our politics.”
Article II outlines a modes role for the president: Execute the laws passed by Congress, appoint some key government posts, interface with foreign leaders, and use the veto to check populist passions. Thus, “the president was basically a lackey for Congress, the deliberative and more democratically sensitive branch of government.”
When did things start going wrong? Consider FDR, with his “fireside chat” radio addresses, which created an unprecedented, immensely exploitable emotional connection with the public.” And before you know it, the public is expecting the president to be savior of the national soul, healer-in-chief after disasters, super-hero battling America’s enemies, overseer of the economy. The president issued over 3,700 executive orders, creating vast new jobs programs and public agencies, sending Japanese Americans to internment camps after Pearl Harbor, etc.
And things got worse with the advent of television. Personal charisma could not be leveraged to create a cultural, which is how JFK – “a pill-popping sex addict” became a youthful icon of Camelot mythology.
Ronald Reagan became the mascot of small government conservatism, even though “his actual policy record is a lot less libertarian than Jimmy Carter’s.”
George W. Bush rode record presidential approval ratings after 9/11 to erect “a vast extrajudicial surveillance apparatus to tap citizen’s phone calls and e-mails." And while Barrack Obama railed against these innovations in the 2008 campaign, he “got away with retaining that apparatus in its entirety" once he got into office. Seems like the presidential mystique “incapacitates people’s critical faculties.”
A full 1/3 of the White House staff is devoted to image management, and the presidential image (and popularity it produces) “is largely detached from the president’s concrete accomplishments.”
Executive power tends to work like a one-way ratchet, up in an emergency and never down afterwards. We haven’t had a declaration of war in a long time, starting with the 1950 intervention in Korea, called a “police action,” which lasted three years and cost the lives of 30,000 Americans. “Congress doesn’t start wars anymore, it just signs off when president say we’re in one.” Vietnam under LBJ, Cambodia under Nixon, Bosnia under Clinton.
So now we have “a president who treats the office as his own private fiefdom, dismissing critics as [enemies] of the people.” But basically, this is just the logical extension of what’s been developing for a long time – in essence “a soft monarchy” rather than democracy. “Fixing our politics requires draining the office of both its formal powers and out-sized importance in American life.”
This analysis overlooks a fundamental point, which is that Congress has not shown itself capable of exercising national leadership. FDR didn’t establish jobs programs and agencies by executive order, these New Deal innovations began with congressional legislation. Etc.
So if presidents were cut down to size, as recommended in the closing paragraph, it’s far from clear that the 535 members of Congress – none of whom are accountable to the voters of the country as a whole – could collectively assume their leadership role.
Mr. Montz is a director at We the Internet TV.