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presidency; Constitution; executive power

Presidential Power

Every president these days thinks he’s acting in the name of the people, with a mandate to fundamentally change this or that about the country. In the process, he makes too little of the fact that his actual power rests on the Constitution, not popular vote, and that, unlike the legislatures in parliamentary systems, congressional majorities have wills and minds of their own. Schooled by Woodrow Wilson to believe that a president is “the only national voice in affairs” and “if he rightly interpret the national thought and boldly insist upon it, he is irresistible,” modern presidents habitually promise too much and then face the need to expand their reach to try to accomplish those lofty goals.

These underlying facts of American political life are not likely to change anytime soon, if ever. The power of the presidency, moreover, was never intended to be minimal. Within a decade of the revolution, the founding generation had overcome their fears of anything smacking of monarchical authority. They saw, in the absence of independent, unitary executive authorities at both the state and national levels, shoddy governance when it came to domestic and national security affairs. America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, did not have a separate executive branch, and the Constitution, in adopting a system of separated powers, intended to free up executive capabilities more than limit them.

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Event: The Imperial Presidency in the Age of Trump

Executive power has expanded so steadily under both Republican and Democratic presidents that the epithet “imperial” is regularly applied to the presidency. President Obama’s aggressive use of unilateral powers led many conservatives to call for a more assertive Congress and Supreme Court to curtail this expansive employment of executive authority. But these same conservatives now face a new president, Donald Trump, who appears equally prepared to use the powers of the bully pulpit to achieve his policy goals.

Is the imperial presidency now a permanent fact of American life? How should today’s constitutionalist think about the presidency’s role in governance at home and in light of America’s role in the world? Join AEI for a timely discussion on the foundations and proper use of presidential power.

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AEI