Thu | Feb 22, 2018

Martin Henry | Power and the presidency

Published:Sunday | January 22, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Martin Henry
President Barack Obama speaks with President-elect Donald Trump during the presidential inauguration at the US Capitol in Washington on January 20.

Donald Trump has been safely sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Some false prophets had been proclaiming that God told them that Trump would not make it to the White House even after being duly elected by the College of Electors.

But, bang on target in line with Article 20 of the Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, Trump was sworn in on January 20, last Friday, at noon.

America does not operate a pure democracy and very calculatedly set out at the founding not to do so out of fear and caution for unbridled mass rule. But it has done considerably better politically and economically than most countries that have set out to operate a pure democracy.

In the American system, voters do not directly 'elect' a president, the Electoral College does, with members appointed by each state equal to their number of senators and congressional representatives but not them. The Electoral College traditionally follows the votes, but there is the prospect of what is called the 'faithless vote'. The president-elect then proceeds to pick a Cabinet of non-elected persons.

We don't get to vote directly for a prime minister, but that person is constitutionally obliged to name a Cabinet mostly from elected representatives, being able to draw only four ministers from the nominated Senate.

The Trump Cabinet picks have generated as much controversy as the man himself and the presidential campaign. The president appoints judges of the Supreme Court, ambassadors, and a wide range and growing number of other public officers of the federal government.

As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he has the power to make war and to make peace. He can veto decisions of Congress, the legislature. And he can rule by executive orders on many matters where he does not have the support of Congress. This is one powerful political office!

The US presidency, as designed in the Constitution, was intended by the founders, as extensively discussed in the Federalist Papers, to balance the twin political problems of creating an executive office powerful enough to discharge the duties of leading the federation of states, particularly for defence, but under sufficient control so as to not grow despotic. Like the monarchical powers of Europe that they had escaped and one of which, the colonial master, Britain, they had complained so bitterly about in the Declaration of Independence.

The American president is very much a king, but one elected by a council of wise men, rather than inheriting a father's throne, and having certain checks and balances to his power constitutionally imposed upon him. And since Franklin Delano Roosevelt's four terms, ending with his death in office in 1945, this appointed king has been limited to only two four-year terms as a further check on power. President Obama, with one of the highest popularity ratings for American presidents, went out to chants around the world, including in democratic legislatures, of "four more years!"

Donald Trump enters the Office of President with one of the lowest popularity ratings, plus, among other troubles, a lawsuit from a former 'Apprentice' contestant who is accusing him of sexual assault. Kennedy, one of the handful of great American presidents, was more discreet in his trysts. And Clinton tried to be but with much less success.

But whatever his legal troubles might be, whatever the controversies swirling around him, however low his ratings, Trump is the most powerful American president ever.




And why is this so?

There has been a progressive concentration of power in the executive over many years despite the caveats of the Constitution. The 10th Amendment, for instance, crafted as part of the Bill of Rights in the infancy of the American Republic, forcefully warns, "The powers not [specifically] delegated to the United States [the federal government] by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

The big wars of the 20th century, in particular, have accelerated the process of the growth of executive power and guaranteed its irreversibility. The founding idea was that of a fairly loose confederation of states, that might otherwise have been completely independent of each other and of Britain, to organise a common defence, cooperative commerce, and a single superordinate legal system presided over by the Supreme Court. Not a lot different from a somewhat tighter CARICOM with a Caribbean Court of Justice.

A vast and growing federal bureaucracy has sprung up and is bigger and stronger than any president, whoever he might be, who sits atop it, and this Machine is not very steerable by force of vision or personality. Ask Obama.

I was happy to see syndicated journalist Gwynne Dyer making the point last Wednesday in this newspaper: The Great Global Panic "about the grave danger that the ignorant and impulsive Trump will pose to world peace" ignores the fact "that the real US government - the tens of thousands of senior civil servants and military officers who actually make the machine work - are people with a lot of real-life experience, and they instinctively resist extreme policies and grand visions".

Calmer, more historically and politically aware observers and analysts would have noticed the really visible shifts in Trump's behaviour and rhetoric as he was briefed by the Establishment during the transition period. It is the presidency as a behemoth institution with a life of its own that will mould the president, not the president the institution.

The next thing is that the soft, diplomatic, understanding, decent, and dignified Mr Obama has bequeathed to the presidency and I, therefore, to his successor, a gift of additional power from an 'Imperial Presidency' driven by one of the most extensive use of executive powers by any American president.

As the Daily Beast analyses the situation online, "Obama did not expand his presidency with a Trump in mind. Only a man who trusts himself more than he believes in the system, a man who always thinks he is the smartest guy in the room [not an unfair assessment of Obama], would be oblivious to the dangers of doing such a thing. And only liberals totally enamoured by their own man in charge, before any desire to protect the system and the country, could ever tolerate such a thing.Yet this is precisely what happened."




Now all that unprecedented executive power built up by Obama is passed to Donald Trump, the Beast argues, or more correctly, to whoever Obama's successor would be, as the presidency grows at the expense of everything else, gobbling up and consolidating power in itself.

Obama's imperial presidency, which saw him "reigning through an uncharacteristic level of executive orders and military decisions shrouded in secrecy", led to a consolidation of presidential power that has "created the perfect climate for an authoritarian figure to succeed him," the Beast opines.

And it did not have to be Trump. The Beast is describing a more general fact of political history. It is not merely personality. It is system. A Ben Carson or a Bernie Sanders would quickly adopt the role. Hillary Clinton comes already fit for the role.

That role is leading an imperial America shedding its founding principles in accelerative fashion in a world where the dream of multilateralism is in for a very rough time as global crises, such as those set out at Davos at the World Economic Forum last week around Inauguration Day, will drive demand for strong, centralised leadership. Imperial powers will always act imperially. There are no exceptions in history. And Donald Trump now heads the biggest imperial power the world has yet had.

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and