Excitement and coverage surrounding the presidential election can be healthy for American politics, especially when it engages American voters in the political process. However, an observation I have made this cycle is that voter enthusiasm too often seems to be based on the illusion that the President of the United States can unilaterally change a broad range of policies. This belief is primarily the fault of presidential candidates themselves, Congress, the media, and to a degree human nature. The idea that the president has this kind of power is distant from the practical considerations that originally formed the office of the president, and perpetuating this idea unwisely encourages the American people to grade government performance by the actions of one person with limited power—inevitably setting the public up for disappointment, loss of trust in government, and fueling rhetoric that is dangerous to democracy.
People’s tendency to unwisely place power in a single person is a phenomenon that the original drafters of the Constitution were cognizant of. Many of the drafters were concerned that the president would become like the King of England. James Madison in Federalist No. 63 warned how the deficiencies of human nature can impact government, saying that “there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn.” Addressing the concern that the president would have too much power, Alexander Hamilton wrote Federalist No. 69, arguing that limits placed on the powers of the president would prevent the consolidation of power in the executive. Too long to share here, Hamilton’s summary at the end of Federalist No. 69, comparing the powers of the King and those of the president, show the strong limits that the drafters wished to shape the executive by.
Despite these efforts by the drafters of the Constitution, over the last century the American people have come to view the modern presidency as having more power than it actually does. Take for example the Democratic and Republican nomination processes. On the Republican side, with the nomination of Donald Trump virtually secured, people voted for him because they believe he is the candidate who can alone do what past Congresses and presidents have failed to do. Whether it is to build a wall across the southern border of the United States, prevent religious groups from entering the country, or reshape international trade agreements, the essence of their belief is that the president can alone overcome whatever barriers prevented policies in the past. Unfortunately, their belief lacks understanding basic American government concepts—barriers preventing change are not always a matter of presidential willpower or authority, but are structural and purposefully built into the Constitution. Put simply, they misunderstand what the president is alone able to do. The president cannot pass legislation or unilaterally act in every policy area. Trump is not the first presidential candidate to have over-promised, and if elected, he will inevitably under deliver.
One of the strongest limits to presidential power is the fact that much of what the president exercises authority over is created through congressional action. For example, the Affordable Care Act only exists because a Democratically held majority of the House and the Senate drafted it and voted for it. Like any other piece of “presidential legislation” the ACA, which many see as one of President’s Obama’s signature accomplishments, only exists because Congress was in active and constructive agreement with the President. The president does have legitimate, influential, and powerful authority, however, Congress is given the power to pass laws, which is usually the only way to fulfill many presidential promises. So, when considering if presidential candidates can really fulfil their promises, people must consider whether Congress is willing to act congruently.
Understanding that the powers of the president are limited is essential to having a healthy political system. Repeated election cycles of unrealistic promises and unmet expectations hurts the American political system, creating a cynical people, who often lose trust in government, forego future participation in the political process, or become even more susceptible and responsive to every fairytale promise made by increasingly demagogue-like presidential candidates.