“Power always thinks it is doing God’s service when it is breaking God’s laws.” – John Adams
Nearly 250 years ago, a bunch of guys got together and decided they had enough of being ordered around by some guy wearing hardware on his head. They decided they wanted to let everyone in on the act of running their country. Even though there was not a large populace, there were obviously too many people to get together in one place and debate issues without the whole thing degenerating into a riot. There were also logistical issues since they were lacking planes, trains, automobiles, phones, radios and such, not to mention the massive undertaking of assembling adequate numbers of port-o-potties.
The solution of course was to have the people select citizens of like mind to represent them and assume responsibility for running the country. In spite of their abhorrence to one person rule they realized it was necessary to have an executive type person charged with the duty to implement their decisions. Since this person was to represent everyone, he was elected by a nationwide vote. Of course, there is nothing in this overly simplistic civics lesson that is not already known by anyone capable of reading this thing however my point is to suggest that we have deviated from the original script handed to our Presidents by those original designers of our government.
WHO IS THE BOSS?
It is clear that the Constitution expects the President to do the bidding of congress. Although he is free to initiate some actions on his own, most require congressional approval. Politics is all about power, and those guys writing the Constitution were wise enough to realize that the pursuit or even lust for power is an inherent quality which afflicts all mankind. I suspect they were well aware there would always be those lurking in the shadows looking for an opportunity to take over consequently; they saw fit to distribute power among three separate branches.
In addition to a legislative body charged with making laws and an executive to implement them, there was need for a judiciary to resolve differences in interpretations of the Constitution. It was to be headed by a supreme court which would be the final arbitrator. In an effort to provide those judges with immunity from political pressure, they were given lifetime tenure. Now these judges render decisions that are very predictable and just happen in most cases to coincide with the political party which sponsored their appointments. This lack of objectivity is so blatant that we now label each judge as either liberal or conservative, and their votes reflect their political biases. But that is another story, and for now I wish to focus on what I see as problems with the power of the President.
THE OLD BAIT AND SWITCH
It is obvious the original intent was for the balance of power to be heavily weighted towards the legislative branches, and that the President couldn’t do much without their approval. It appears to me that the roles have been reversed, so that the President now carries the big stick and congress sucks up to him. As a matter of fact, the President is now often referred to as the most powerful man on earth. The question arises as to how this power shift came about.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
Consider the State of the Union address mandated by the Constitution: The President “shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Article II, Section 3, Clause 1. Those of you who have managed to put boredom aside long enough to listen to some of these performances may have noticed that those “recommendations” often sound more like demands these days.
Indeed, his entrance to the hall is greeted with a reception fit for a king or even a rock star. He is announced with great fanfare, and his fellow travelers surround him reaching for his hand or the opportunity to touch the cloak of the great one as he moves toward the podium. As he speaks his fans cheer from one side of the aisle while the opposition ensconced on the other side glowers. The entire spectacle reminds me of a high school football game where the fans of each team sit on opposite sides of the field cheering for their guy no matter the content of his words. In the game of politics the prize is power. With millions watching worldwide this is the ultimate in “bully pulpits”, and POTUS uses it to great advantage.
WHAT YOU SEE IS NOT ALWAYS WHAT YOU GET
Image is most important as a means of gaining power. A popular President can be of great help to a congressman seeking reelection, and likely result in a tendency to bow towards the President’s demands. FDR made effective use of radio with his “fireside chats” as a means to not only reassure the nation but to bypass congress and appeal directly to the people to support his views. Now we find there is hardly a day goes by without some pronouncements from our President on TV, not to mention his very effective use of social media to influence voters.
PROBLEM SOLVING VS. FOOD FIGHTS
Our two-party system nearly guarantees support from congressional members of like party affiliation. Consequently; when his party is in the majority he is unlikely to face much opposition, and even when faced with a majority opposition he needs to schmoose only a few, in order, to have his way. The extreme divisiveness we have experienced in recent years results in what Truman called “a do-nothing congress” with the chief executive taking charge by default. The hostility of political debate has become so intense that it often seems as if those we elect show more loyalty to their political party than to their country. This allows a power-hungry person (and aren’t they all) to rise above the fray and be seen as the adult in the room. The current divisiveness encouraged by our political parties was predicted by both our first and second Presidents even though Adams laid the groundwork for the 2 party system.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
The nearly limitless budget of the executive branch allows the president other opportunities to curry favor and therefore power. For example, Woodrow Wilson was able to overcome the resistance of U.S. involvement in World War I by hiring a full-time person and staff charged with selling the idea to the public, all of which naturally was paid for by that same public targeted by the propaganda. A more current example concerns the amount of costs to taxpayers of travel to deliver “campaign style speeches” by our current president. There appears to be no such accounting available. In similar manner Presidents early on learned of many ways to influence public opinion by using taxpayer money to burnish their image and enhance their power.
NEED TO KNOW
Secrecy is vital to maintaining a grip on power, and generous use of the rationale of withholding information due to alleged risks to national security has become commonplace. The most egregious example in my lifetime was the continued involvement in the Vietnam war long after it was clear to those in charge that the war was lost, yet I don’t recall any apologies by our leaders, including the commander in chief, for the thousands of lives lost in order to protect the image of presidential infallibility. More recently of course was the use of black sites for torture, and procedures designed to invade the privacy of the citizenry. These activities also had been kept under wraps and only disclosed via the work of the press and so-called leakers who in many cases should be renamed as patriots.
TRUST, BUT VERIFY
Yes, we are living in the information age and information is power, even more so than in the early days of the country’s formation. The liberation of secrets is the job of the press, which must remain apart and free from government influence. Following a debacle early on in which a number of publishers were actually imprisoned, the founders wisely passed the 1st amendment to the constitution which among other things guaranteed the freedom of those truth finders to accomplish their missions. Many Presidents’ relationships with the press have been contentious to some extent as the struggle for openness is continuous. Our current leader disdainfully describes the press as “enemies” of the people, but our founders saw them as protectors of liberty.
WHEN THE PRICE IS RIGHT
As our government has grown exponentially so have the number of jobs controlled by the President. There are staff members, judges, lawyers, a cabinet, department heads, ambassadors, an office staff, advisors, and many other positions to be passed out to the faithful. Generally, the president is given a great deal of latitude in choosing these people, and confirmation by Congress when required is usually a formality. The power to hire or fire in these highly valued jobs is considerable, and an effective form of patronage which guarantees loyalty and influence.
THE BIG CLUB
The impetus for writing this little ditty came about as I recently noted that a number of executive orders were being reversed. I set out to find what the executive order thing was all about, and found it had its origins from Article 2 of the Constitution. My take on that was that they saw the need for the president to have sufficient power to implement laws passed and to make decisions regarding his operation of the executive branch. Congress could also cede power to him when required. I also learned that executive orders are subject to judicial review and carry the power of law. The biggie of course is the President’s ability as commander in chief to wage, but not declare, war which in the atomic age is about as powerful as one can get.
The executive order has been used with great effect to increase the power of the President. It was not until Theodore Roosevelt that it found its greatest utility as he averaged nearly 3 EOs per week during his tenure. The fad caught on quickly and successive presidents upped the ante with Teddy’s cousin FDR, who has remained all time champion, with twice that amount. His three term total was 3,721. Not to be outdone, our own Donald Trump is on track to sign the most such orders in 50 years.
People being the way they are, it is not surprising that our presidents continue to test the limits of executive orders. In response to an article in the New York Times titled “Shift on Executive Power Lets Obama Bypass Rivals” Bruce Fein writes in a letter dated April 24, 2012, the following:
“Executive branch power at the expense of Congress and the Constitution’s checks and balances has mushroomed since World War II. Examples include President Truman’s undeclared war against North Korea; President Eisenhower’s executive agreements to defend Spain; President Johnson’s Gulf of Tonkin Resolution regarding Vietnam; President Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia and assertions of executive privilege; President Clinton’s undeclared war against Bosnia; and President Bush’s countless presidential signing statements, Terrorist Surveillance Program, waterboarding and Iraq war.”
Another problem with executive orders is that they can be rescinded by subsequent Presidents as has been the case with nearly all of President Obama’s orders. This does not provide for a great deal of consistency especially when they involve issues involving other countries, leaving them to wonder if they can count on our commitments.
George Washington in his farewell speech cautioned against “foreign entanglements”. We have ignored that advice in spades and Presidents are largely responsible for many of the worst entanglements from which we now find nearly impossible to extricate ourselves. Granted the world is now smaller and more interconnected than in the early days, thus isolationism is no longer an option, but promises to deliver “shock and awe” or “fire and fury” must imbue one with a greater sense of power than to engage in some mundane international trade agreement.
HELP IS JUST A DICTATOR AWAY
As the world shrinks not only our own troubles but those from thousands of miles away appear as if on our doorstep. The presence of an ocean separating us offers little protection, and the world becomes a scary place. The world is now troubled and there are volunteers everywhere promising to fix everything. Today there appears to be a trend towards authoritarianism with some leaders now in office for life. Madeline Albright in her book “Fascism A Warning” points out conditions that lead to fascist take overs. In a previous blog, I mentioned Erich Fromm a German psychoanalyst who proposed in his 1941 book “Escape From Freedom” that freedom is anxiety provoking and that in times of crisis people naturally look for someone to take charge and tell them what to do and how to do it. There is an upsurge of fascist activities throughout Europe and the U.S.
According to the Economist’s Democracy Index of 2017, they have noted a worldwide trend towards autocracy including Hungary, Egypt, North Korea, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela. Their 2018 report indicates continuing decline, and they re-categorized the United states from a democracy to a flawed democracy. Perhaps, even more disturbing was a report from the Pew foundation which showed a decline in Americans’ faith in their government from 70% to below 20% in the past 50 years. Albright says, “We are becoming disconnected from the ideals that have long inspired and united us.”
TOO BUSY TO VOTE?
Those ideals were put forth by a group of revolutionaries many years ago who so believed in those ideals they were willing to risk being hanged as traitors. It is difficult for a wimp like me to imagine the courage required by their decision to go up against the most powerful man on earth, or to imagine the courage of the nearly 3,000,000 Americans serving in the military who have since died in defense of the ideals that are the foundation of this great Republic. Though some of those efforts may have been misguided, they certainly were real to those who fought for them. The ultimate shame must reside in those in positions of power who may have sent them in harm’s way for any reason other than the defense of those ideals.
There are many who believe that we are now facing a time of greatest threat to our democracy since its birth. In any event we can now longer take it for granted. If we really care we must become involved. Our voting records are appalling. The greatest threat to our democracy is and perhaps has always been from the inside. My favorite birther of our nation John Adams recognized this in the very beginning in the following statement: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide”.
Some of our current President’s behaviors may seem laughable but they are not funny! They deserve our serious attention.