The Power of the President

I want to develop an idea I mentioned in passing in an earlier post. It has to do with the limited power of the President and the absurd promises our presidential candidates make about what they will do when elected — given the fact that by themselves they cannot do very much at all. Witness Barack Obama’s pathetic attempts to promote some sort of gun control.

Our Constitution borrows from the pages of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws in dividing power among the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial. Limiting power was a prime concern among political thinkers in the age of Enlightenment as they sought to wean themselves from the whims of various corrupt Monarchs. If one reads our Constitution one immediately realizes that Congress is the main body in the thinking of those who wrote and later adopted that document. The very first Article in the document deals with legislative powers. There are ten Sections in that Article. On the other hand, there are only four Sections in the Article dealing with the limited powers of the President. Most of them stress the need for the legislative body to “advise and consent” or the manner of election and impeachment of the president. Clearly, those men were worried that they might be creating another monarch. And this they did not want — even with George Washington ready at hand.

The ten sections under Article One describing the powers of the legislative body are detailed and extensive. They go on for pages and outline a body that not only manages the purse strings, but also has the capacity to control the excessive urge to power of any president. And if those latter restraints are insufficient there is always the Supreme Court that further limits the President who might wish to get too big for his or her britches. The document is all about limiting power because these men knew better than anyone how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton once said.  And the reason these men put so much faith in the legislative branch is because they were convinced that those elected would represent the will of the body politic. In the small country at that time they envisioned the representatives serving with little remuneration for a very short time and in that time visiting their constituents on a regular basis and merely parroting the wishes of those who voted them into office. If the representatives varied too much from the will of the voters, they would be voted out. That was a given at the time, as is clear from the Federalist Papers.

We have seen how this hasn’t worked out, of course, with no term limits on those elected to Congress and huge salaries now attached to political offices. Men and women get into office and their primary urge is to remain there as long as possible. They don’t give a hoot for the needs of their constituents, since they answer only to the wealthy persons whose money can guarantee them a long term in office. The founders never saw it coming.

This is why, in the end, when we are thinking about which political candidate might make a good president we should be thinking about which candidate could work most effectively with a Congress that holds the purse strings and which is the seat of power in this country. Personally, I think Bernie Sanders stands out above the rest of the presidential candidates, because he has the best sense of what would be good for his country and is willing to take on the powers that be. He realizes, as the rest of the candidates do not, that the real contest in this country is not between the Republicans and the Democrats but between the corporations that would take all the power and the people who are supposed to have it. But, the question is, can he work effectively with what has become a recalcitrant (for want of a better word) Congress tied to the wealthy by their purse strings?  I suspect not, sad to say. I suspect he is regarded as an outsider and would find himself running in place — unless by some miracle the voters manage to alter the make-up of the Congress and give him enough legislators to work with.

That, it seems to me, is the main question.


10 thoughts on “The Power of the President

  1. Hugh, this is a well thought post, as per usual. It would serve as a good piece for a Civics or Political Science class. On the GOP side, the most reasonable candidate to serve this purpose is John Kasich. I don’t agree with him on several points, but he has served as a reasonable governor working across the aisle. Yet, his voice is being drowned out by the chest beaters. Thanks, Keith

    • I find it hard to believe. He is immensely wealthy but is totally with our principles. I dare say he can be bought. One could argue he has been bought already by the lure of popularity!

  2. Hugh, you’re right — this should be a civics lesson. Not only for the schools but for most adults, too, who’ve forgotten how to find the balance in the system of checks and balances, and have let stubborn adherence to selfish and often-self-defined aims fail the common good. Cooperation, as you’ve written before, is a key to any kind of functioning society and certainly to the units of a functioning democracy. People can disagree, and should. But not to the point where it paralyzes decision-making and where partisan fever overtakes good judgment.

    As you know, I am working on a fairly good-sized history about American life in 1940, which was, probably even more than today, a turbulent era in a turbulent world. There was disagreement and there was distrust. But there were also wise and calm heads, who were actually listened to, and taken seriously. Imagine that!

    A case in point. The respected editor of the Minneota Mascot, a weekly Minnesota paper, was Gunnar B. Bjornson, a former state lawmaker and informal American envoy to Iceland. He was a “liberal Republican,” in an era when that could still be done. In 1940, Bjornson wrote a series of editorials leading up to the election between FDR and the Republican challenger Wendell Willkie. They were anti-FDR editorials, in part criticizing the New Deal programs for, by 1940, overreaching their authority. But Bjornson was more opposed to FDR because Roosevelt was running for a third term, which went against Bjornson’s deeply held beliefs in a democratic system in which power should not, indeed, be too concentrated in one branch or another, and that a person should not stay in office too long.

    But after the results were in, and FDR had won, Bjornson wrote an editorial that preached something sorely missing today: cooperation.

    This is from my draft of that part of my book:

    The editorial was headlined “National Unity:” it reminded the winning Democrats that while they had kept the White House, the Roosevelt administration still served the whole country and was not a dictatorship, but also reminded the Republicans essentially that they should not be sore losers. The election left no doubt about national unity but “conferred no blank check,” for FDR. “It was no expression of blind, unquestioning acquiescence. Loyalty to our democratic principles still demands fullest respect for the views of those who disagree with us as well as those who {agree].” Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, should not be “obstructionist but remember they have a mandate that demands intelligent contributions to the debates which will shape national policy in the future.”

    We need to return to that kind of spirit, or we really risk the constitutional freedoms and protections that aspects like checks and balances are meant to ensure. It’s one thing to disagree, to even introduce legislation that’s contrary to what a president’s agenda is. That’s part of the checks and balances. But to obstruct and not offer constructive alternatives to the point of perpetual standstill is not leadership or representation.

  3. This is so true. And I totally think/wish Civics was a required high school class. While students do take U.S History, there is no class assisting them on how to be a productive and knowledgeable citizen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s