Over the past month and a half, this esteemed opinion page has been littered with essays about the relative merits of each candidate seeking the presidency of the United States of America. Topics from the economy to Iraq to health care have been vigorously debated and the merits of Barack Obama and John McCain scrutinized from almost every angle. However, history will not only look back on the next four years and judge policy — it will also trace the curve of executive power.
The presidency of the United States has always been a prestigious position, but it was rarely such an incredibly powerful one. Men like Andrew Jackson and John Adams frequently bickered with Congress, but almost never as their superiors. Congressmen such as John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay and Henry Cabot Lodge were not only instrumental in passing legislation — they also played a large role in political decisions of the nation. Lodge’s opposition crippled Woodrow Wilson’s push for U.S. entry into the League of Nations. Somehow Jesse Helms’ refusal to mail our membership dues to the United Nations back in the mid-90s doesn’t quite stack up.
Of course, presidents sometimes exercise powers not granted to them. Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War, and Richard Nixon tried to extend executive privilege during the Watergate affair. In the end, both men ended up returning those powers, though in decidedly different fashions.
During emergencies it seems we are willing to give our leaders — especially the president — greater power. However, in modern history, it seems the president has never quite gotten around to returning those powers. The Great Depression necessitated that the president take on powers unprecedented in their scope and mission. Then came World War II, and we needed a strong commander in chief. After the war was over, the Soviet threat emerged, and our chief executive needed the authority to have a finger on the button at all times in order to keep the Soviets in check. After that came Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Gulf of Tonkin, the Balkans War, Sept. 11 and Iraq.
And so we stand today, at the edge of an ever-growing wave of presidential power. Perhaps a suitable barometer of this increase in power is the executive order. Though not explicitly defined in the Constitution, executive orders have been issued since George Washington. However, he never tried to use them to nationalize the steel industry (Harry Truman) or fight a war — a power Congress has ceded to two different presidents in the last decade. Slowly but surely, powers traditionally (read: Constitutionally) reserved for Congress — or the state, or individuals — have been absorbed by an ever-expanding definition of what a president can — and should — do.
So how exactly do McCain and Obama figure into this debate? The election of one could mean four years of a president who strongly believes in executive power and whose agenda places him squarely on a collision course with a Congress that is projected to be controlled by his opponents. Congress could assert itself and restore some of those checks and balances we learned about back in eighth grade — I can definitely think of a few places they could start.
The election of the other would place in power a president with a strong mandate for a broad agenda of change. This could be an incredibly exciting time, and with his party in control of Congress, this new president would have the potential to make landmark reforms. However, he would also have the chance to seize an even bigger slice of the government’s power pie. We can only hope that whoever is elected, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi will keep a watchful eye on the windowsill, rolling pin at the ready.
Any Republican or Democrat will tell you there is a lot riding on this election. They are right — just not for the reasons they think.
Joey Labuz ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in biomedical engineering.