Yes, the president isn’t the problem — but the presidency is

By Luke Lattanzi | Staff Writer

Last week, The Lariat’s Editorial Board declared that “the president isn’t the problem — our expectations are,” arguing that Americans often place too much stock in who occupies the Oval Office. The Editorial Board rightfully noted the disproportionately large consequentiality of presidential politics when compared with everything else, but it failed to properly appreciate the problem of a seemingly ever-expanding executive branch bureaucracy, where the intricacies of policies are made by unelected bureaucrats as opposed to elected lawmakers.

Americans do place a disproportionately large emphasis on the presidency, and voter turnout in presidential elections is often considerably larger than that in congressional elections. State and local elections — which often decide the implementation of policies that will affect people the most — are given even less attention than what is taking place nationally.

While the Editorial Board was right to point out Americans’ unhealthy obsession with our nation’s executive branch, it nevertheless stops short of identifying the true problem at hand. The president may very well not be the problem, but the presidency itself is another story.

“The average citizen doesn’t seem to grasp that beyond these enumerated powers, the president is little more than a figurehead,” the Editorial Board wrote when citing the enumerated powers of the executive and legislative branches in the Constitution. “Much to their chagrin, ‘single-handedly ensuring the holistic success of the United States while establishing an immaculate economy’ is not in his job description — because it is, quite literally, in someone else’s.”

Or at least, it is supposed to be in someone else’s.

The presidency has evolved considerably since 1789, from the steady aristocratic republicanism of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to the radical democratic republicanism of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson to Woodrow Wilson’s declaration that the president ought to be “as big a man as he can.” The exact scope of the enumerated powers of the presidency and the separation of powers more generally (as well as the system of checks and balances that maintains that separation) have been in contention since 1787.

One of the most significant problems of our federal government has been an ever-expanding bureaucracy that precludes the influence of our elected officials (who are supposed to make policy on behalf of their constituents) in favor of unelected “policy experts.” The results are, well, perhaps exactly what you would expect. Every four to eight years, the crux of the first 100 days of a new White House administration — especially when the new administration is part of the opposing party — is usually centered around the vast number of executive orders the president signs, oftentimes revoking wide swaths of policy from the old administration with the stroke of a pen.

In 2021, for example, then-newly inaugurated President Joe Biden signed more than 60 executive orders in his first 100 days, many of them devoted to reversing orders from the Trump administration. But the problem also transcends political parties. Former President Donald Trump signed a hearty 30 executive orders in his first 100 days — significantly less than Biden — but the problem persists nevertheless.

This seemingly endless cycle of whimsically overturning and changing policy can be widely attributed to the sheer size of the modern federal bureaucracy, as well as the worrying amount of near-legislative authority that Congress has delegated to executive branch agencies over several decades.

Many call this uniquely modern formula of American statecraft the “administrative state” — a sort of amalgamation of power-sharing arrangements between our nation’s elected class, Congress and the president, and unelected bureaucrats who are entrusted to handle the countless intricacies of policymaking and implementation. Trump regularly calls this phenomenon the “deep state,” though it usually comes with the notion that the bureaucracy was actively trying to sabotage his presidency during his time in office. Whether or not you agree with Trump’s deep state rhetoric, however, is beside the point. The administrative state is real.

It would appear, though, that the administrative state can create some serious power struggles within the executive branch. For instance, on Sept. 5, 2018, The New York Times published an op-ed by formerly anonymous author Miles Taylor — his name omitted due to his position as the Pentagon chief of staff at the time — effectively bragging about being part of the “resistance” inside the Trump administration. The piece has a sort of heroic tone to it, as if it were somehow a good thing that an executive branch official, who is subordinate to the president of the United States, was trying to undermine the administration of a duly-elected official.

The words “duly-elected official” carry the most weight here. The president and vice president are the only elected officials in the entire executive branch, and Article I of the Constitution is quite clear when it vests “the executive power” in the nation’s chief executive. If the president is unable to properly control his own branch — if he is forced to tolerate an array of rogue bureaucrats who think taking matters into their own hands is somehow akin to saving the republic — then the Editorial Board is unfortunately correct: The president is really little more than a figurehead.

Of course, all of this begs the question: Why is this the case? Well, for starters, the federal government does not work the way you were taught via conventional K-12 education. We were all told that the legislative branch makes the law, the executive branch executes the law and the judicial branch interprets the law. In reality, however, this process is very much corrupted by a politically impotent Congress that passes 5,000-page mega bills (that many lawmakers do not even read), which proceed to delegate the countless intricacies of policy implementation to executive branch agencies.

A good start to fixing this problem would be for Congress to make more of an effort to legislate intentionally, preferably tackling one issue at a time. By doing this, Congress can pave a path toward reasserting its lawmaking power.

Ultimately, though, this effort will have to come from all of us. Americans of all parties and stripes must rededicate themselves to building a more productive civic culture, and they must start electing representatives who desire to be more intimately involved in the policymaking process. We must stop depending on an unelected, bloated federal bureaucracy to magically ordain our policy solutions if we are to ever put an end to the cycle of presidents whimsically signing and revoking policies.