Have We Forgotten the Separation of Powers?

As leader of the Executive Branch, the President holds a considerable amount of power, both in the literal and metaphorical sense. Presidents are capable of issuing executive orders, vetoing legislation, appointing people to key government posts, and shaping policy decisions. And as the Commander in Chief and occupant of the White House, the President also becomes an important symbolic figurehead in the United States, the person the rest of the nation looks to as a leader, but also as an emblem for what is going right or wrong in the country. When things are going well, that must be because of the President, but when things are going badly, this is also the President’s fault. Acceptance of responsibility through thick and thin is part of the President’s role, but it’s a little but more complex than some would like to make it out to be.

Because there are, after all, three branches of government, and the executive is only one. Many people seem to regard the President more like a dictator, capable of setting policy, passing laws, making treaties, and conducting other acts of business utterly independently, without having to consult anyone, work with anyone else, or stay within the confines of any laws or Constitutional clauses designed to limit the President’s powers. At the same time people celebrate living in a democracy, they treat the Presidency by different rules, and with those rules comes a heady set of expectations.

People demand that the President do everything, even though this is not only not realistic, but also not legal. The President cannot in fact run willy-nilly through Washington doing whatever the people want, because the Presidency is balanced out by the legislative and judicial branches of government. Congress and the courts have their say as well, representing the people, interpreting the law, conducting investigations, writing new laws. This three-branched structure was created with a lot of thoughtful intent, to prevent the seizure of power by any one branch of government, to ensure balance throughout.

While I do not hold to the cult of the Founders maintaining that the people who wrote the Constitution and other documents setting the precedent for how the United States should be run can do no wrong—the Founders also believed that women were lesser, negotiated the infamous 3/5ths compromise, and would have regarded people like me with disgust and horror—I do think the Founders had some solid ideas. One of them was the distinct separation of powers in government, and it’s dismaying to see that many people appear to have forgotten about this key aspect of the Constitution’s structure in their haste to make the President responsible for all things.

Presidents make a lot of promises during their campaigns; many of these promises aren’t made with the intent of fulfillment, or are voiced with a plan to make a token effort without any real force behind it. Others are more serious, though. Even when they’re made, however, the President is aware that many of these promises hinge not just on the will of the Oval Office, but cooperation throughout the White House and in other branches of government. Presidents do not work alone and cannot expect to do so; if they did, this nation would have a very different political, social, and cultural landscape.

We should by all means challenge Presidents and hold them accountable for failed promises. But we should also evaluate the anatomy of those failures to find out what went wrong and why, and how much responsibility the President really has. Did a President make a promise that couldn’t be fulfilled? Did the President fail to work with the right people to put a promise into action? Did a President fail to anticipate the resistance to a promise created through an obstructionist legislature? Or did voters not actually hear what the President promised, spinning words into something that would suit their own desires rather than actually carefully noting what the President did and did not say in the process of making that promise?

Domestically, the President is simultaneously told to be authoritarian and force through policy, while being told by members of opposing parties that the office comes with too much power and the President is cramming initiatives down the throat of the rest of the country. There is no way to win in this political balancing act. Either the President is doing too much or not enough, and ultimately, no one is happy. Meanwhile, no one looks to Congress to see if some of the holdup lies there; if, perhaps, an issue is being held up in committee or can’t muster enough floor votes. And no one looks to the courts to ask why they aren’t considering a case, setting a precedent, why they ruled in a given way on a specific issue. The President alone shoulders the burden of all three branches in the eyes of many members of the public.

It’s understandable and reasonable to express approval or lack thereof of a President in terms of what was or was not accomplished during the President’s administration. But it’s important to be realistic about what a President set out to accomplish and what could have been accomplished not just within the legally defined powers of the Presidency but also the political climate. Because governance is complex, and the President isn’t handed a magic wand on inauguration day and informed that it can be used to do anything and everything. Like the rest of us, the President is restrained by the law, and this should be viewed as a good thing, not a bad one. It’s good that Presidents can’t force through any policy they please without consultation; because while one President might do that in a way you favour, the next one might not.