For decades, thoughtful observers of American politics have called for downsizing the presidency. Under President Donald Trump, they are getting what they asked for, if not in quite the way they had pictured it.
The Constitution gives pride of place to Congress, the subject of its first article. But conservatives, moderates and liberals alike have long warned that the branch discussed in Article II — the executive — has become the dominant one.
The modern president sets the agenda, at least when his party controls Congress. He frequently proposes legislation and guides it to passage, using his unrivaled megaphone and his sway over his party to get his way. The enlarged executive branch can put an enormous amount of manpower behind the president’s plans. Assistants and Cabinet secretaries (and assistant Cabinet secretaries) can amplify his voice, extend his will and implement his policies.
Beyond his role in lawmaking, the president has come to occupy an ever-larger place in our culture. We expect presidents to speak for the country, not just preside over the federal government. At least since the Challenger explosion in 1986 and the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, presidents have also become our “healers-in-chief.”
There is hardly a controversy, no matter how trivial or local, on which we do not expect the president to render judgment. President Barack Obama, for example, weighed in when the owner of a basketball team made offensive remarks. (Obama thought they were offensive.) Gene Healy, the author of “The Cult of the Presidency,” has written that “the modern president is America’s shrink, a social worker, our very own national talk show host.”
During the last administration, as Obama rewrote laws on immigration and health care unilaterally, conservatives became especially concerned. Many supported Donald Trump’s election in the hope of reining in an executive branch that had bucked its limits. Early in Trump’s administration, his adviser Steve Bannon said that “deconstructing the administrative state” would be one of its projects.
Trump himself has rarely spoken this way. During the campaign, he showed no qualms about a heroic conception of the presidency. Indeed, his convention-speech boast, “I alone can fix it,” was a hyperbolic expression of it. When Trump talks about Congress, it is typically with the assumption that its job is to do what he says.
His policies have done very little to scale back presidential power. Trump has withdrawn some regulations, and has mostly declined to follow Obama’s path of presidential unilateralism. (He has, however, stuck with Obama’s practice of making payments to health insurers that Congress has not authorized.)
Yet Trump has gone a long way, in just seven months in office, toward deflating the pretensions of the presidency. That reduction in the stature of the executive has been Trump’s effect rather than his intent.
The White House left Congress to come up with health-care legislation, and has been fairly hands-off about its content. It deferred to Congress on the scheduling of issues, too: Republican leaders in Congress decided to take up health care first.
Trump has had much less influence over his party than previous presidents. Republicans in Congress feel much freer to criticize him than they did President George W. Bush, or than Democrats did Obama. His own appointees feel free to express positions that differ from his (and to criticize him scathingly off the record).
The president is at least as eager as his predecessors to share views on all topics, including what he thinks of specific media personalities. Yet his words are carrying less and less weight. Fewer Americans see him as a national healer or spokesman, especially after Charlottesville. “Trump has done more than any president since Richard Nixon to demystify the presidency,” Healy tells me now.
The critics of the imperial presidency have tended to assume that its weakening would revive Congress, or even come about because Congress had reasserted itself. But Congress is out of the practice of legislating without presidential direction. Right now we see dysfunction on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Members of Congress who complain about a president in need of on-the-job training could use some themselves.
In 1968, Nelson Rockefeller offered a description of what a president should be:
The President is the unifying force in our lives. … The President must possess a wide range of abilities: to lead, to persuade, to inspire trust, to attract men of talent, to unite. These abilities must reflect a wide range of characteristics: courage, vision, integrity, intelligence, sense of responsibility, sense of history, sense of humor, warmth, openness, personality, tenacity, energy, determination, drive, perspicacity, idealism, thirst for information, penchant for fact, presence of conscience, comprehension of people and enjoyment of life — plus all the other, nobler virtues ascribed to George Washington under God.
It would be good to have a president with those qualities, but it is more important not to expect them as a matter of course. After seven months of Trump, expectations are a bit less stratospheric.
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Francis Wilkinson at email@example.com