Policy Perspectives of the Presidential Candidates: Executive Power and the Role of the Presidency

August 5, 2016

Over the last decade and a half, the “most powerful office in the world” has grown even more powerful, thanks to two presidents in a row who repeatedly pushed the limits of executive authority. The Bush administration’s mission, as described by Vice President Dick Cheney, was to “leave the presidency stronger than we found it.” Mission accomplished: when Bush and Cheney left office in January 2009, they passed on to Barack Obama the vast new powers they’d forged in the War on Terror and the financial crisis of 2008.

As president, Obama in turn pushed those powers still further. Boasting that “I’ve got a pen and a phone,” our 44th president increasingly governed by unilateral directive in areas ranging from education policy, immigration, and environmental regulation at home to military action abroad — ensuring that his successor will inherit a presidency with dangerously expansive powers. (Thanks, Obama.)

The two leading candidates for the job are also the most widely distrusted major-party nominees in the history of polling. Yet, barring a miracle, either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will inherit all the weapons of the radically enhanced presidency: the pen, the phone and the drone. Hillary Clinton has said she’ll go “as far as I can, even beyond President Obama” in ruling by decree; Donald Trump has said he’s going to “do a lot of right things” with executive authority: like use the antitrust laws to silence his critics; create a database tracking Muslim citizens; and force Apple to make the iPhone in the United States.

The spectre of a Trump or Clinton presidency ought to concentrate the mind wonderfully: no one person should be trusted with the powers the modern president holds — least of all, either of the people most likely to be president in January 2017.

Can public distrust of Trump and Clinton help “counteract the Cult of the Presidency,” as George Will recently suggested, and dispel “magical thinking about the wonders of executive power”? Does our current dilemma offer an opportunity for a congressional resurgence — a chance for Congress to relimit a presidency that’s grown beyond its constitutional bounds? Join Cato vice president Gene Healy for a discussion about the dangers of executive overreach and the means for restraining it.

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