Cartoon by Kevin Siers
Why Trump’s Weakness Masks the President’s Power
The New York Times: For all his bluster, Donald Trump is generally seen by presidential observers as a shockingly weak president. Brought to office in an election in which he lost the popular vote, his approval ratings have remained consistently low. Even with his party in control of the White House and Congress for two years, beyond a typical Republican tax cut, Mr. Trump failed to secure a signature legislative accomplishment.
The president may seem weak, but the presidency remains strong. Mr. Trump has illustrated that even a feeble commander in chief can impose his will on the nation if he lacks any sense of restraint or respect for political norms and guardrails. True, Mr. Trump has not been able to run roughshod over Congress or ignore the constraints of the federal courts. But he has been able to inflict extensive damage on our political institutions and public culture. He has used his power to aggravate, rather than calm, the fault lines that have divided our country.
His “wall” government shutdown is the latest example of his misuse of executive power. To end this essentially pointless standoff of his own making, he is exploring the use of national emergency powers to build a wall Congress and a majority of the public don’t want.
The Trump administration has provided a new example of an old concept: the “imperial presidency.” That term, famously used by the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1973 to describe the excesses and abuses of the Nixon White House, fell out of use almost as soon as President Richard Nixon fell from grace. The reckoning of Watergate and the first-ever resignation of a president seemed to show that the executive branch was not as uncontrollable as it had once seemed.
Congress enacted a wide range of reforms that promised to restrain presidential power. The War Powers Act of 1973 created mechanisms to ensure that Congress authorized the deployment of American troops abroad. The Budget Reform of 1974 centralized the process used by the House and the Senate to make decisions about spending money so as to make the legislative branch more of an equal of the executive. The Campaign Finance Reform Act of 1974 established a system of public finance for presidential elections along with spending and contribution limits.
The National Emergencies Act of 1976 required the president to offer greater specificity about how and when he or she was going to use emergency declarations. (This is the authority President Trump has reportedly explored as a way of funding his wall.) Intelligence reforms imposed limits on the C.I.A. and F.B.I., whose surveillance and national security operations had greatly enhanced the president’s power. Last but not least, the Ethics in Government Act of 1978 sought to watch against a replay of Watergate by establishing the Office of the Independent Counsel to ensure that there would be independent investigations into executive branch corruption.
Despite these reforms, four decades later, the “imperial presidency” still seems to be alive and well. What went wrong?
The most familiar challenge stems from the fact that in the midst of national security crises, much of the nation remains willing to allow presidents to respond to its perceived enemies. Despite the War Powers Act and the larger lessons of Vietnam, Congress has continued to allow presidents to send troops into combat without a formal declaration of war. In response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Congress passed legislation authorizing a vast expansion of the national security system that gave President George W. Bush and his successors access to new organizations, programs and institutions through which to pursue national security goals without congressional support.
Since the 1970s, Democrats and Republicans have sorted themselves by party, with less room for internal dissent and less of a will to criticize or challenge a president from one’s own party. Both parties have been willing to grant the president more authority when it served their purpose. The main dynamic for Democrats has centered around party leaders supporting presidents who use executive action, through regulatory orders and rule making, to deal with urgent policy problems that congressional Republicans oppose. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton turned to executive power to deal with energy and climate change when Congress refused to do so. President Barack Obama did the same on immigration after congressional obstruction prevented compromise legislation from passing.
Republicans have done much in the same vein, in moments of divided and united government alike. Republicans have also gone a step further to protect the party’s electoral interests through the use of, for instance, strict voter-ID laws.
Aggressive presidents also depend on a partisan media to do their work without too much pushback. President Trump has demonstrated how this could be turned into a powerful tool for the White House. Mr. Trump has routinely repeated stories seen on the “Fox & Friends” morning program and leaned on conservative cable hosts like Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs for advice as well. Indeed, the line between the Trump White House and conservative media outlets has become blurred beyond recognition. The former CNBC host Larry Kudlow now serves as head of the National Economic Council, while the former “Fox & Friends” host Heather Nauert has been nominated to serve as ambassador to the United Nations. Bill Shine, a former executive at Fox News, now runs the White House Communications Office.
The imperial presidency is, in many ways, propped up by media partisans who insist that the naked emperor has glorious new clothes >>>
Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, history professors at Princeton, are the authors of “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.”