Historically, the Office of the President of the United States was severely limited. If modern presidents went back in time to tell the likes of Washington, Jefferson, Henry, Adams and others, about their duties and responsibilities, most of them would be scandalized.
There were dozens of heated debates in the years before the ratification of the Constitution that we know today. The committees were split between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists. To put it simply, not everyone wanted a stronger federal government, let alone a stronger executive branch. I mean, hello, didn’t they just rebel against a strong executive?
Most of us know how the story goes: eventually, the 1787 Constitution was ratified with ten clauses to safeguard individual and states’ rights. They settled with three branches of government, all of which had to heed checks on their power.
The Powers of the Executive:
The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offences against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.
He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur; and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.
From this section in the Constitution, it’s clear that the framers had no intention of creating a presidency that held too much sway in the international sector. The framers gave this responsibility to Congress, expressing that only Congress had the powers to declare war, regulate commerce with foreign nations, and fund the military.
The only powers the president was expressly given were the ones stated above. The first expansion of presidential powers was during Abraham Lincoln’s term. Facing the near collapse of the Union, President Lincoln drew on executive powers not expressly mentioned in the Constitution to launch the country into its first civil war. There were many critics of his usage of powers not expressed in the Constitution, with some going so far as to label him a dictator. We all know how that ended. It was a successful campaign that ended with the Union remaining intact. If he’d been unsuccessful, then it’s safe to say that presidential emergency powers might have come to an end at that point.
Since he was successful in keeping the country together, presidential emergency powers became the first of many not-expressly-written powers that presidents could draw on. Also recall President Roosevelt’s use of these powers to help revitalize the country’s economy.
In recent years, the Office of the President has used these powers to unilaterally instigate wars in the middle east, go after terrorist leaders, circumvent congressional approval, and exit long-standing treaties.
Most of these actions weren’t taken to preserve the union, and it’s unclear whether these actions have had any real positive effect on the state of the country. Should presidential power be diminished in light of the recent ‘abuse’ of presidential powers? Or should individual presidents hold so much power that they single-handedly dictate which treaties we pull out of, and which countries we unilaterally invade? This is a controversial question that has been debated for years. But due to the actions of the past few presidents, I think we’ll be seeing a resurgence in this debate.