—Bruce P. Frohnen, Ohio Northern University
All kinds of Americans are angry with Joe Biden. Some because he can’t bring down inflation or keep baby formula on store shelves. Some because he hasn’t solved our current energy crisis. Still, others because he’s failed to quiet (or, for some people, failed to expand) confrontations in our schools, businesses, and public square on issues of race, gender, and trans-genderism. Are Americans right to blame this President for failing to bring prosperity, fairness, and cultural peace to our nation?
In one important sense, Americans are wrong to blame Biden. How so? Because the President is not invested with the power to control our economy or our social institutions, let alone our culture. And our demand that President’s “do something” has, for decades, made those problems, and our disappointment, worse.
It is understandable that people fault Biden’s actions in shutting down pipelines, canceling oil leases, and empowering extremist forces pushing race- and gender-based ideologies for many of our present discontents. But he was able to cause this damage only because we have increasingly demanded that Presidents “take charge” of our lives, even when our Constitution and traditions tell us he should not. Our demands, as much as presidential ambition, have created a feckless monster of a presidency that endangers our very way of life.
A Look Behind
Even a cursory look at our history shows that a key virtue needed by every President is self-restraint. Presidential aspirations to “do great things” are vast. But Presidential powers and responsibilities, as spelled out in the Constitution, are quite limited. Almost all presidential powers revolve around foreign relations. The President is our chief representative to the world, authorized to appoint ambassadors and serve as commander in chief of our armed forces. But on domestic policy, the President’s powers are few. His chief policy tool is the veto—a power he can exercise only once Congress has passed legislation, and which Congress can override with a two-thirds majority. As a policymaker? Article II’s limits are clear: “He shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” Beyond making recommendations, the President is not supposed to be a major domestic policymaker. Instead, he is supposed to see that the laws are faithfully executed—neither to make nor to alter them, but to see that they are put into action as Congress intended.
The President simply isn’t authorized to take charge of our economy, let alone our society more generally, so a good President should restrain himself from making promises he can’t keep. Those promises can only raise false expectations and divert people from joining together in their own states, communities, and voluntary associations to make better lives for themselves. Well into the 20th Century, most Presidents understood the limits of their powers and restrained themselves from overstepping Constitutional bounds. It also helped that Congress jealously guarded its sole right to make law. All this has changed.
Over the last 90 years, Americans repeatedly have elected Presidents who promised to solve problems, from the Great Depression to “systemic racism.” And so we’ve had “great” Presidents who instituted massive programs from Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” to Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” to Barack Obama’s “Hope and Change” initiatives on everything from medical care to the race and gender makeup of corporate boards.
Many Americans continue to value these programs and the institutions they spawned. But most of the changes were produced more by Executive Orders and other forms of presidential decrees that aren’t provided for in the Constitution. What is more, the vast bureaucracy built by these decrees itself issues countless rules, regulations, and other demands that often create conflicting rights and duties. The result is increased confusion, inefficiency, conflict, and a loss of self-government. We now have a government-run outside our constitutional order; a government Congress won’t run, the President (despite his unconstitutional powers) can’t run, and which clearly can’t run itself well enough to allow mothers to find formula for their babies and Americans to protect their children from radical indoctrination.
There are still some limits on Presidential power. The Supreme Court’s recent decision in West Virginia vs. EPA holds that the President’s Environmental Protection Agency cannot formulate its own rules dictating how electricity can be generated throughout the United States. Yet Biden is going ahead with plans to do just that, and has ordered countless agencies to make similar rules reconfiguring laws governing all aspects of economic and social life.
A lack of restraint by a presidential candidate, promising to “fight climate change” has made it necessary for him to seize yet more power through Presidential orders. And now, even in the face of opposition from the Supreme Court, the President can’t, or won’t restrain himself from more executive overreach. The result is unconstitutional action that may or may not reduce certain kinds of emissions but definitely will increase the cost and decrease the availability of energy to heat American homes this winter. And so Presidential failures continue even while Presidential powers increase.
What can we do to end this vicious cycle? First, and most importantly, we must strive to bring our government back to its constitutional roots in limited presidential powers, aimed mostly at protecting America in the world and seeing that the laws passed by Congress are faithfully executed. Presidents (and presidential candidates) must restrain themselves from overpromising and overreaching. They must concentrate on reigning in the powers of their own office, and especially of the people in the administrative agencies who supposedly work for them but often in fact work instead for their own ideological and policy goals. And we the people? We must restrain ourselves, refusing to choose Presidents who promise too much, refusing to demand a government that will try and fail to take care of all our needs and solve all our problems. Instead, we must demand that precious and elusive good of limited, constitutional self-government.
- Do we expect too much of our presidents? How might we scale back such expectations?
- Have Americans become either too ignorant of the Constitution or too indifferent to its restrictions?
- Given the oath of office, should a president still be considered “great” even if he went beyond Constitutional restrictions?
Bruce P. Frohnen is a Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University College of Law and Senior Fellow at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal.