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We're asking the wrong questions about presidential power

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Is the American presidency incompatible with democracy? Has President Obama moved the office even further from its limited, constitutional origins? A series of pieces in the Washington Post last week took up this question, making a range of arguments about Obama's use of executive power, particularly some of his more high-profile executive orders. Most of these were written by legal scholars, although there was an interesting piece by Latin American politics expert John Carey about the power of the US presidency in comparison with other presidential systems.

But with the exception of Carey's comparative perspective, a lot of this was familiar territory — Obama has expanded executive power, no he hasn't, well at least not more than everyone else. It's time to think more clearly about what we mean by democracy as it pertains to executive power, and how ideas about this have evolved in American political history.

Democracy has many dimensions

When we talk about democracy, we tend to actually mean a complex, multidimensional concept. When we talk about whether the presidency is compatible with democracy, we are usually talking about either rule of law or regime stability.

Regime stability comes up less often with the United States (exception: Matt Yglesias's provocative piece last year), but questions about the rule of law and constraints on executive power come up fairly often in discussions like these.

Needless to say, this isn't the only important facet of democracy. The people also fit in there somewhere. Here the structure of the Constitution and the debates surrounding its design give us an important clue: The original design of government was intended to balance institutions that were fairly responsive to the voting public — like the frequently elected House of Representatives — and those who were more insulated, like the Senate and, to some extent, the presidency.

In Federalist 70, Hamilton stresses the importance of accountability as a justification for having a single person serve as president instead of spreading the power out among several individuals. If executing the law is a group effort, Hamilton maintains, the leaders can pass the blame around rather than having one person who is ultimately responsible for decisions. (Does this sound like any other branches of government you know?)

What's less clear, though, is that the presidency was designed to be responsive. The Electoral College was meant in part to keep the president from being overly responsive to the needs of a few highly populated states. The informal term limit norm that emerged early on also suggests a preference for keeping the president at a remove from the electorate, and that there were things — like keeping the same person from serving too long — that were worth the trade-off with responsiveness.

The Progressives strike again

It was apparent almost immediately that the American presidency did not function exactly as designed. Even before the modern administrative state made Obama-style politics of enforcement possible, presidents had a great deal of decision power. The decisions they made — from the Louisiana Purchase to Franklin Pierce's support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation — hardly transcended ordinary political conflict. Even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who both disliked political parties, outlined the priorities and stances for their respective sides.

The real push for the presidency to be more democratic — more responsive — came around the turn of the 20th century. The patronage system, which kept presidents responsive to the needs of localized constituencies, broke down. Progressives, including the presidents from both parties, saw the potential for the president to be a vehicle of responsive government — to discern the priorities of the electorate and lead the national agenda accordingly.

Progressive leaders like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson didn't get all of the policy changes or reforms to the process that they wanted. But their ideas about the presidency took hold and eventually transformed expectations about what presidents should do. From this era, a stronger version of the old tension emerged: Presidents hold a lot of unilateral power to enforce policy. They have a lot of symbolic power to shape the policy agenda. They pretty much run the show on foreign policy, despite any number of constitutional objections. And we also expect that they will be democratically responsive.

You knew the Trump part was coming

The ambiguity in the design of the American presidency, combined with changing norms about democracy, has led to an office that is infused with contradictions about its role. Last week's debates illustrate how these tensions have played out. Both parties have candidates who are engaging in rhetorical responsiveness — Trump and Sanders (insert disclaimer about how different they are in all other ways) offer ideological satisfaction, but even their sympathizers wonder about the execution of their plans. On the other hand, candidates with governing experience and more specific policy plans have lost points with some primary voters.

These splits are easy to blame on the party system, where purity and compromise have become subjects of debate on their own. But we could also link them to the fragmented purpose of the presidency — to be accountable, responsive, decisive, and constrained by rule of law; to manage and lead simultaneously. Expectations that the president will, in the words of presidency scholar Richard Neustadt, "do something about everything," lead to the use of unilateral power to go around congressional checks.

Presidents and presidential candidates also have an incentive to address subjects rhetorically — saying what constituents want to hear — even when they can't do much as a practical matter. In a polarized context, this can exacerbate anger and distrust, as we are seeing in the current moment.

The debates about whether presidential power has grown too much have become pretty stale. They tend to come down to preferences about the different trade-offs involved, and to partisan evaluations of the person in the White House. Serious analysts would do well to step back and think about the presidency in historical as well as cross-national context, and to ask questions about the structures that lead us to evaluate the president as both too weak and too strong, sometimes in the same paragraph.

The different dimensions of democratic governance are not harmonious. There are trade-offs among them. Yet over time, the American polity has become increasingly intolerant of what those trade-offs entail. This isn't to say that we shouldn't be attuned to whether presidents overreach. But we may want to pay more attention to the contradictory expectations that pull presidents in many directions.