In his State of the Union speech to Congress last month, President Obama drew widespread attention for pledging to use his executive authority to advance his priorities. He insisted he intends to act with or without Congress, and listed well over a dozen actions he plans to take by executive order. “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families,” he said, “that’s what I’m going to do.”
Plenty of people were happy about this. The speech was applauded by pundits who have given up on Congress and believe the only way to move forward is by strengthening the presidency. Our political system, they say, is weighed down by too many interest groups, too many checks and balances, and too few avenues for circumventing a Congress that is both polarized and highly susceptible to the wishes of its donors. The present government is paralyzed, they believe. A stronger presidency would get Washington moving again.
As you’d expect, others are alarmed by this approach. The president, they say, is trampling on the constitutional separation of powers, grabbing powers for himself that were meant to be shared with Congress. They point out the Constitution gives Congress a primary role in making policy.
The problem with this debate is it’s missing a key part of the equation. Yes, our system needs a strong presidency. But it also needs a strong Congress. We are best off as a nation when the two consult, interact, and work together as powerful branches.
In truth, every president in recent memory has expanded the power of his office and been accused of a power grab. They’ve had plenty of motivation to do so. The modern world demands quick, decisive action. Americans tend to support presidents who act forcefully. Congress is complex, convoluted, and hard to work with; it is far easier for an administration to act on its own. Even members of Congress often defer to the president, counting on him to address issues they don’t want to tackle or can’t agree upon.