How Do We Fix the American Presidency?Historians in the News
tags: presidential history, executive branch, separation of powers
President Trump has never been a picture of legal rectitude — this is, after all, a man who boasted during his campaign that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing voters — but the Republican National Convention last week struck many viewers as an especially spectacular display of lawlessness.
“Mr. Trump’s aides said he enjoyed the frustration and anger he caused by holding a political event on the South Lawn of the White House, shattering conventional norms and raising questions about ethics law violations,” my colleagues reported. “He relished the fact that no one could do anything to stop him.”
One need not be a capital-d Democrat to discern a problem here: When a president no longer feels obliged to obey the rule of law, it suggests the office itself has outgrown existing mechanisms of accountability. If the presidency is too powerful, what can be done to rein it in? Could the answer actually be to vest it with more power? Or should we just do away with it entirely?
The rise of ‘the imperial presidency’
In 1973, when the Watergate scandal was enveloping Washington, the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. famously declared that executive power had spiraled out of control. “The imperial presidency, created by wars abroad, has made a bold bid for power at home,” he wrote in The Atlantic. “If this transformation is carried through, the President, instead of being accountable every day to Congress and public opinion, will be accountable every four years to the electorate. Between elections, the President will be accountable only through impeachment and will govern, as much as he can, by decree.”
Misgivings about executive overreach hit a high-water mark during Richard Nixon’s presidency, but they did not begin with him. As Tina Dupuy has documented in USA Today, they had also flared during Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. After his acquittal, a group of concerned citizens drafted a petition arguing that the framers of the Constitution had erred in designing the presidency, which they condemned as an elected kingship. In the wake of Mr. Nixon’s resignation more than a century later, Congress enacted a slate of reforms meant to constrain the chief executive, the historians Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer wrote in The Times last year.