Breaking the bonds of an imperial presidency
The drum beats of the 2022 and even 2024 elections is already rumbling through the land and with it come the cries from Team Red and Team Blue to get on board, or get out of the way.
The heated rhetoric is highest at the presidential level, where decency and civility – never mind humility – are signs of weakness. How did we get here and how can we escape? Cato’s Gene Healy writes the underlying issue is we’ve allowed the presidency to become so powerful, it overshadows everything else in official Washington. And it’s getting even more so with each administration:
Credit where due, Joe Biden has managed to deliver a Twitter feed more decorous and dull than his predecessor’s. But Donald Trump’s incontinent and erratic personality wasn’t what made the presidency the central fault line of our polarized republic—it was the vast powers the office has accrued.
In the first days of his administration, President Biden unleashed such a flurry of unilateral edicts that even the New York Times editorial board felt compelled to cajole him: “Ease Up on the Executive Actions, Joe.” By the 100‐day mark, Biden had already issued more executive orders than President Obama managed in his entire first year.
Because it’s much easier, and far less messy, to govern by decree than it is to engage with Congress. But how to fix this tendency toward autocracy?
We need to rein in emergency powers, war powers, authorities over trade, and the ability to make law with the stroke of a pen.
But relimiting the presidency isn’t enough. We need fewer one‐size‐fits‐all decisions made by the president and fewer such decisions made by the federal government. The “Big Sort,” by which more Americans have chosen to live near like‐minded neighbors, has helped turn our national politics into a winner‐take‐all death match, but the same conditions ought to enable a reinvigorated federalism. Polling data has long shown Americans trust their state and local governments much more than they trust the feds. Even in the pandemic summer of 2020, 60 percent of respondents professed substantial confidence in their state governments; for local governments, the number was 71 percent. Those numbers argue for devolving more power to states and localities: we’d have less to fight about if the important decisions were made closer to home.
Sounds like a refurbished version of Reaganism, which at least gave lip service to the idea of devolving federal power to the states where possible. Is it practical today? Perhaps. But there are precious few friends of federalism in Congress or the White House. Unless they loosen their grips, the presidency will continue to grow in power, and consume much more of our time and attention than it constitutionally deserves.