On substance, the arguments over President Trump's first major address to Congress will go on forever. But on tone he got it mostly right. He supplemented his gloom-and-doom warnings of the campaign trail with a sprinkling of optimism.That's also what I wrote in an editorial eight years ago after President Obama's first major address, and look how well that turned out.
I generally agree with the critics who said Trump was very presidential and gave his best speech ever. He skipped all the press and perceived-enemy bashing. He outlined a coherent vision broadly touching on all the themes of his campaign. He paid homage to those who voted for him and tried to reach out to everybody else. He called for us all to move forward with a common purpose. You know, presidential.
But I was struck by how many times he sounded like every other president I've heard, which is to say, very aware of what a powerful office he holds. Too powerful by the standards set by the Founding Fathers and the Constitution. The Imperial Presidency is always worth talking about. Now that there isn't somebody in the White House whose every policy we oppose, maybe some of us on the right can feel freer to talk about it."We no longer have three branches of government," writer former congressman and college professor Micky Edwards at Politico:
Instead of three equal, independent branches, each a check on the others, today’s federal government is, for practical purposes, made up of either two branches or one, depending on how you do the math. The modern presidency has become a giant centrifuge, sucking power from both Congress and the states, making de facto law through regulation and executive order. Yet the growing power of the executive is not merely a case of presidential power lust. For decades, the Supreme Court has consistently held that on most policy questions, foreign as well as domestic, statute trumps fiat (as recently as 2014’s decision Zivotofsky v. Kerry, the court declared that "the executive is not free from the ordinary controls and checks of Congress merely because foreign affairs are at issue"). But if Congress subordinates its constitutional duties to political concerns, what then?
Presidents have managed to accumulate such a prominent place at the top of what is now increasingly a pyramid rather than a horizontal structure of three connected blocks because for more than a generation, Congress has willingly abandoned both its constitutional responsibilities and its ability to effectively serve as a check on the executive even when it wishes to do so.
I understand it's naive to think we can return to the days when the executive carried out the orders dictated by Congress in those quaint vehicles known as laws. And perhaps the complex and fast-moving world we live in requires a president with more authority than originally envisioned. But surely members of Congress can do a little soul-searching and comprehend that they're abdicating their responsibility.
When the Founders met to hammer out the Constitution, most of them envisioned a presidency far weaker than the one they finally settled on. Some of them thought there should be more than one executive — as many as three — to diffuse the power of that office. Some thought the executive should be appointed by Congress and therefore beholden to it. And some, including "father of the Constitution" James Madison, thought the presidency should include an executive council so all the power wouldn't be concentrated in one person's hands. It was only near the end of the convention that they ditched the idea of an executive council and came up with the complex method of choosing a president thorough electors.
The idea that a president can affect millions of Americans instantly by merely signing a piece of paper would have stunned them. The idea that he could start a war, then tell Congress about it, would have horrified them. It should horrify us, too.
We can't be the position of worrying about the power of the presidency only when someone we don't like holds the office. We should want a presidency with so many checks on power that we don't have to care who holds the office.