Elections 2012: Debating the Power of the Presidency

Mark Trahant
9/24/12

How much power does the President of the United States have? Really?

Sometimes when you listen to candidates, the person in that office has the power to fix the economy, even when those problems have been decades in the making. Or to turn a dial on a thermometer and adjust the global climate. Or require civility from a political mob.

Last week Univision anchor Jorge Ramos asked President Barack Obama about his promise of immigration reform. “And a promise is a promise. And with all due respect, you didn’t keep that promise,” Ramos said.

“There’s the thinking that the president is somebody who is all powerful and can get everything done,” President Obama replied. “In our branch of — in our system of government, I am the head of the executive branch. I’m not the head of the legislature; I’m not the head of the judiciary. We have to have cooperation from all these sources in order to get something done. And so I am happy to take responsibility for the fact that we didn’t get it done, but I did not make a promise that I would get everything done, 100 percent, when I was elected as president. What I promised was that I would work every single day as hard as I can to make sure that everybody in this country, regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they come from, that they would have a fair shot at the American Dream. And I have — that promise I’ve kept.”

That idea – the notion that a president has the power to pick up a pen, sign a proclamation, and that would then fix something – runs deep in American politics.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney often talks about repealing “ObamaCare,” the Affordable Care Act. However that act of repeal would require extra-constitutional authority. As president, Romney could call on Congress to act. He could grant waivers to states on specific requirements. He could leave blank many budget items. But he could not withdraw coverage for young people on their parents’ health care plans. Or un-enact the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. Still. Romney maintains on his first day in office: “I will act to repeal ObamaCare.”

Indeed, on the issue of immigration, President Obama demonstrated the kind of direct power that a president does have when he deferred deportation on young people are from a different country, but who have grown up here.

“I did this because I met young people all across the country — wonderful kids who sometimes were valedictorians, would participate in the community, has aspirations to go to college, some who were serving in our military — and if you heard their stories, there’s no way that you would think it was fair or just for us to have them suffering under a cloud of deportation,” Obama said on Univision.

How did he do that? And why just that little step? “And so part of the challenge as President is constantly saying, what authorities do I have. What we wanted to do was first make sure that we were directing our enforcement resources towards criminals and we’ve done that. And after we put that system in place we said, you know what, we’re still hearing stories of young people being scared about being deported; it’s time to see if we can take even further action. And that’s what we’ve done.”

The Obama Administration took a similar path to settle 41 tribal claims against the United States. Instead of going through Congress, wrestling with the politics of a billion dollar settlement, the administration’s lawyers found legal authority and a pot of money, and made it so.

However this one question – a defining of the power of the presidency – is one of contention in this election.

President Obama said “over the last four years, and the most important lesson I’ve learned, is that you can’t change Washington from the inside. You can only change it from the outside. That’s how I got elected, and that’s how the big accomplishments like health care got done ... So something that I’d really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people so that they can put pressure on Congress to help move some of these issues forward.”

But the Republican’s Vice Presidential Nominee, Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, dismissed that notion entirely. “Why do we send presidents to the White House in the first place?” Ryan is quoted on a Fox News’ blog. “I mean, we send presidents to change and fix the mess in Washington. And if this president has admitted that he can't change Washington, then you know what, we need to change presidents.”

Perhaps it’s the nature of a challenger to see the presidency as all powerful. Four years ago Barack Obama was far more willing to say he could stop foreclosures, repeal the Bush tax cuts, or remove combat troops from Iraq. (For what it’s worth: Of the top 25 Obama promises, fact-checkers at Politifact report more promises kept than broken, while most Republican pledges were called “broken” but that is primarily because each of these pledges were passed by the House and then shelved by the Senate.) Other than “I will repeal ObamaCare,” most of Romney’s promises are not specific. He says he will “restore” the United States and at the GOP Convention he promised to “help you and your family.”

And if that sounds like political preaching, that, too, is an old idea. From an era when the phrase “bully” meant a good person (“bully for you”) Theodore Roosevelt said about the presidency, yes, “most of us enjoy preaching, and I've got such a bully pulpit!” Ah, the real power of the presidency.

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page