How much power does any U.S. president have in affecting domestic issues versus the power he can exercise in foreign affairs? Many Americans believe our president has enormous authority in both arenas based upon promises and criticisms during his presidential campaign. According to our Constitution, that view is in error. Let’s examine where power really resides and how it is actually exercised.
Power in our federal government is divided into three branches: the president, Congress and the courts. Our government was set up this way to keep any one group or individual from gaining too much power.
Congress really is the branch that can affect the economy the most. It can pass laws that help or hinder business activity, raise or lower taxes, pass greater or lesser regulation, increase or decrease entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and unemployment insurance, and expand or reduce defense spending. All of these Congressional decisions have an enormous impact upon the economy.
Presidents can and do make promises to create jobs during elections, but the reality is that they can only exhort or pressure Congress to act. Blaming any president, Democrat or Republican, for the state of the economy is placing responsibility in the wrong place. Most of you have observed how little President Obama can do with a Republican House that holds opposing priorities and goals for running the country.
The president can send out emails and encourage his followers to write or call their Congressional representatives and senators. He can give speeches around the nation and draw attention to issues. The president can urge his supporters to write letters to the editor to force Congress to listen, but he can’t get laws passed without Congressional approval.
There are checks and balances to keep the different branches from abusing their power, but they don’t always work. Presidents can refuse to enforce laws, as President George W. Bush did on several occasions during his term. These actions are called “signing statements.” President Bush refused to enforce laws he disagreed with, even to the point of continuing to torture suspected terrorists and sending soldiers to Columbia to fight drug traffickers. He also did not protect whistle blowers.
President Obama has not prosecuted Wall Street executives for cheating the nation during the 2008 economic meltdown. He attacked Libya using our military without Congressional approval. He has used drone strikes to attack suspected terrorists in foreign countries. All these attacks could be considered declarations of war.
Congress can also withhold confirming appointments for judgeships and key cabinet and agency positions. Congress recently did this in delaying and criticizing Obama’s appointments of Secretary of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency chief.
The president responded to these delays by following a law that enabled him to appoint temporary agency positions while Congress was in recess. He did this when Congress objected to his National Labor Relations Board appointments.
The executive branch was sued in the Federal Appeals Court and the president lost, but his appointees still hold their positions. Until the Supreme Court rules on the case, the president can keep his recess appointments in office. It’s how politics works in Washington, D.C.
The president also can issue executive orders ignoring Congressional delaying tactics. This allows him to do things when Congress refuses to act, as President Obama did recently with nineteen executive orders regarding gun control.
Presidents have far more power in foreign affairs. President Obama orders drone and cruise missile strikes against suspected terrorists in far away nations like Yemen and Pakistan. He can order a commando raid that violates the sovereignty of another nation as he did in the killing of Osama bin Laden. President George W. Bush ordered the kidnapping and torture of suspected terrorists.
Previous presidents have ordered the overthrow of leaders of other nations: Eisenhower in Iran, the Congo and Guatemala, Nixon in Chile and Kennedy in South Vietnam and, unsuccessfully, in Cuba, to a name a few.
Congress can act to limit that power by filibustering, as Republican Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul did recently against drone strikes being used against Americans. The Senate delayed legislation in other areas as a result. Congress can and has acted to support the state of Israel and has frustrated the president in dealing with Iran by coming out with its own resolutions that differ with the president’s goals. Congress is not without power in foreign affairs.
This has been way things have been run since the founding of this nation. It’s part of the real struggle for power that is going on all the time. Government is inefficient and time consuming, often corrupt and influenced by powerful lobbyists, but that is how power really works in the capital.
As you can see, the struggle for power goes on continually in the nation’s capital. It’s often not pretty or polite. Reading and keeping up with what’s going on politically, and looking at what all three branches are doing without your partisan political blinders on, will help to get the real story about how our government is run.