Are U.S. Presidents Lame?

Untangling Whether the White House Has Too Much Power—Or Too Little

It’s routinely called the most powerful job in the world, but the U.S. presidency can seem astonishingly impotent. Ideas proposed in the State of the Union go nowhere once they reach Congress. Deals that are negotiated get killed. On the other hand, when a president wishes to launch a war, very few obstacles stand in the way. If the president wants to lard government agencies like the Justice Department with partisan hires, then only outright scandal will prevent it. So which is it: weak or strong? In advance of the Zócalo event “Should Power Be More Concentrated?” we asked several scholars of government to tackle the following question: Is the United States presidency too powerful or not powerful enough?

George C. Edwards III

It’s not powerful enough

If the power to order men and women into battle or even to order lethal attacks on selected individuals with drones were at the core of the modern presidency, then one could make an argument that the president was, to say the least, powerful enough.

War powers are not at the core of the presidency, however. What actually typifies the modern president—every one of them—is almost constant frustration in obtaining support for his initiatives from the public and Congress. If an initiative is not popular with the public before the president formally proposes it, there is little chance of the public moving in the president’s direction.

Unless Congress is populated with a clear majority of senators and representatives predisposed to support White House proposals, the president’s chances of obtaining passage of legislation are slim. More often than not, the opposition party controls one or both houses of Congress.

As a result, we face stalemate. All one has to do is review the battles over the debt, taxes, and spending over the past two years to see that we can neither resolve issues nor adopt a strategic perspective on core policies.

If you like gridlock, you will love the weakness of the presidency. Conversely, if you want to solve problems and make majority rule effective, you will not support decentralization of power. Indeed, you might want to consider strengthening the presidency or weakening institutions that make it almost impossible for the president to govern.

George C. Edwards III is Winant Professor of American Government at the University of Oxford and University Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.

Lori Cox Han

It’s too powerful

Presidential powers have expanded beyond what the framers of the Constitution originally intended. Presidents tend to seize power to cope with crises while in office, and there has been a long history of aggrandizement. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt all shaped the office of the presidency by adopting broad interpretations of their constitutional responsibilities, and many expansions of power occurred when presidents claimed “the silences of the Constitution.” Presidential personalities can also determine much about how presidential power is exercised. For example, FDR faced a severe economic crisis when he first took office, and he believed the Constitution granted him the powers to act decisively in the face of the Great Depression. His legacy and the constitutionality of many of his actions are still being debated.

In recent years, both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have not shown any interest in reversing course regarding an expansive view of presidential powers. If anything, both have reignited the debate over the president’s role as commander in chief (in response to 9/11 and terrorism) and over executive branch authority regarding domestic policies (for example, passage of Obama’s health care reform). Those who fear presidents have become too powerful, as when a president commits U.S. military forces without a congressional declaration of war, would argue that the actions of presidents during the past several decades are a constitutional aberration. Others, perhaps more realistically, recognize that the dramatic social and economic changes in past decades, not to mention national security and defense issues, require a strong presidency to react swiftly to changing world events.

Of course, these debates are not without partisan motivations. Those who support a particular president will often say he is “leading the nation” while political opponents will accuse him of an unconstitutional “power grab.” The Supreme Court, more so than Congress, has remained at least somewhat responsive in its role to check the powers of the president, while Congress has abdicated much of its responsibility (especially regarding war powers). It seems unlikely that a course correction regarding the expansion of presidential powers will occur anytime soon.

Lori Cox Han is professor of Political Science at Chapman University in Orange, California. Her most recent books include Presidents and the American Presidency (Oxford, 2013), A Presidency Upstaged: The Public Leadership of George H.W. Bush (Texas A&M, 2011), and New Directions in the American Presidency (Routledge, 2011).

Michael A. Genovese

It’s powerful where it should be weak and weak where it should be powerful

Is the president too powerful or too weak? Yes. In times of war or crisis, the president exercises far too much unilateral power. Yet, in times of normalcy, the president is often a Gulliver enchained by thousands of Lilliputians. In this sense, the United States suffers from a Goldilocks Syndrome: In a crisis, power is too hot. In normal times, power is too cold. We can’t seem to get presidential power just right.

During crises and wars, we give far too much unchecked power to our presidents. George W. Bush, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack against the United States, exercised a brand of unilateral power utterly breathtaking in its scope. He claimed to possess a measure of constitutional power that, if true, would have cut the Congress, Court, and rule of law to shreds. Bush suspended habeas corpus, established military commissions, imprisoned U.S. citizens without charging them with crimes, authorized the use of torture (“enhanced interrogation techniques” in the parlance of the White House), dismissed the Geneva Accords, and the list goes on and on. In doing so, the president claimed that his actions as commander-in-chief were “non-reviewable” by the other branches of government, meaning that the separation of powers and checks and balances, along with the rule of law, were suspended. Too hot.

However, in normal times, the Congress, Courts, interest groups, big moneyed interests, and the public, all claim a portion of power and influence, and the president must compete for this power. Constitutionally, the president’s power is quite limited. Congress possesses virtually all the key powers from the right to pass legislation, to declare war, from budgeting authority to the right to regulate commerce, from the right to coin money to the collecting of taxes. By contrast, presidents share virtually all their powers with Congress. The sight of President Obama, struggling to get even the most mundane of bills through a recalcitrant Congress (e.g. raising the debt ceiling) speaks to the extent to which Congress can thoroughly frustrate the exercise of presidential leadership. Too cold.

Presidents are too powerful in areas where there needs to be more oversight, and too weak in areas they desperately need more authority. We never seem to get presidential power just right.

Michael A. Genovese holds the Loyola Chair of Leadership at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of over thirty books, including A Presidential Nation (Westview, 2013), and, with Thomas E. Cronin, The Paradoxes of the American Presidency (Oxford University Press, 2013, 4th edition), and Leadership Matters (Paradigm, 2012).