by Samuel Murray, columnist
The United States Presidency occupies a unique place in U.S. politics, as do President Biden’s first actions in his new role. The U.S. Constitution authorizes a limited array of presidential functions, primarily noting that the president is the commander in chief, diplomat in chief, and has political appointee power. Informally, the president also has the influence of the bully pulpit. Yet 2021 is not 1787, whether it be in writing or in practical implementation. The Constitution could not have anticipated the concentration of executive power that has occurred from FDR to present day – the same type of enhanced executive power many founding fathers despised.
One major source of presidential power is the increased use of executive orders to enact policy changes. President Biden has signed a flurry of these orders in the weeks since his inauguration, both to overturn Trump administration policies and push forward his campaign promises. Hypocritically, many Americans are supportive of these actions under President Biden – yet were appalled when former President Trump used the same power. As a country, we are relying more and more on executive actions for immediate change, which may not be a bad thing. But while liberals and moderates support these actions now, it’s important to note the slippery slope we face; under the next adversarial administration nearly all federal policy changes Biden has made thus far could be unraveled on day one. The presidency is equipped to deal with rapid changes, but at a cost.
Additionally, the numerous executive agencies have obtained more power, authority, and jurisdiction, largely since President Clinton – creating what Professor Jonathan Turley conservatively framed as the “fourth branch of government: the administrative state” (Marshall 2008, 15). While many have criticized America’s growing bureaucracy as burdensome, ineffective, and costly, the administrative state is profoundly important for responding to the diversity of needs in the multitude of sectors they have jurisdiction over. Without a series of executive agencies to enforce policies specific to issue-areas, the legislative branch would be ineffective to rapidly respond to developments. This should be a greater criticism of Congress’ inability to act quickly rather than of the growth of executive agencies – Congress should be the legislators, but too often they are preoccupied with politicking for reelection, rather than helping the nation as a whole. This is why we recently have defaulted to the Presidency and executive agencies to legislate, set the agenda, and utilize the bully pulpit to field out policy popularity, rather than rely on Congress to act.
This contextualization paves way to explain where President Biden can fit into the institution of the presidency in political time. Political time, a central thesis of Yale Political Science Professor Stephen Skowronek, utilizes the subfield of political development to explain and analyze where each president resides in a time period and how they govern in response to events (Skowronek 2020). In political time, the period in which President Biden resides is highly unusual. On day one, he was confronted with an economic crisis, a once in a century pandemic, a civil rights movement, and a uniquely constant pressure to act on sweeping issues of healthcare, student debt, and the environment, to name just a few. As a presidential character, he exhibits a return to the tradition – a political careerist with eyes set on the presidency, embodying a sense of duty and necessity to help his country in need (Barber 2009). Whether you agree with his politics, his desire to achieve the highest political office has been apparent since the 1980s, with several unsuccessful presidential runs paving the way for his political time to govern the nation’s highest office.
What Biden needs to harness is his sense of duty – his duty to serve Americans as a political careerist wrapping up his tenure. He can take his expertise and enthusiasm to enact transformational leadership and comprehensive policy changes and push Congress to act on large-scale appropriations. While presidents have significant influence over Congressional actions, they cannot legislate sweeping budgetary allocations, which are essential for funding most federal functions. We have seen in the past what inaction gets us – the Trump administration can be compared to the Hoover administration in that in the wake of devastating joblessness, minimal aid came (Skowroneck 1997). As a consequence, both presidents lost their reelection campaign as first-term incumbents, a rare occurrence in American politics.
Biden may not have exhibited the same characteristics as transformational leaders such as FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, or even Reagan when he was a senator or vice president. FDR advocated for brand new programs packed in a “New Deal,” including social security, strengthened labor unions, massive infrastructure projects, welfare protections, housing protections and more. These were reactionary policies, compensating for the dire situation millions of Americans were in, paired with extra urgency from the previous failure of the Hoover administration. He responded to the multiplicity of problems America had – he became a great leader and advocate for economic relief. Biden must mimic that. We have lacked a transformational leader since Ronald Reagan, who initiated a structural reorganization of our taxing system, and without a progressive champion for much longer. Biden may not previously have fit into the paradigm of transformational leadership, but his need to do so could not be more urgent.
Biden’s campaign promises for a climate action plan, expanding jobs, healthcare and getting COVID-19 under control, need to be addressed and supplemented by strong leadership. Many of his proposals are a return to Obama-era Democratic politics, which brought minor incremental changes and ignored structural problems. But facing so many problems at once, the conditions could not be better suited to addressing the institutional flaws in the way we govern society at the federal, state, county and municipal level. Playing a political moderate now is only going to hurt Democrats’ chances in 2022 and 2024 – Americans don’t want stagnant politics. They want genuine change and a promise to better the lives of everyone. Forget about the deficit, spending money on relief bills and transformational programs will not break the economy, but will greatly reduce American suffering. In the words of FDR, “to balance our budget in 1933 or 1934 or 1935 would have been a crime against the American people.” FDR initiated deep structural additions to the government to respond to an economic depression, and the same approach necessary now in the face of countless crises.
Can we predict where Biden will land in political time, and what his political trajectory will be as president? At the moment, it’s hard to pinpoint. Perhaps Biden will still fail to get deep enough to reconstruct institutional practices. But some of his initial executive orders, such as abolishing contracts with private prisons, indicate openness to institutional reform and acknowledgement of progressive priorities. Some of this responsibility for change also lies on the shoulders of a Democratic Congress – a challenge with only slim majorities in both houses. But Biden has an opportunity to act in political time as a transformational leader. It is up to him to act, and give the American people the confident leadership we desperately need.
Barber, James. 2009. The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House. Pearson Longman Publishing.
Marshall, William. 2008. “Eleven Reasons Why Presidential Power Inevitably Expands and Why it Matters.” Boston University Law Review (88): 505-522.
Skowronek, Stephen. 1997. The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton. The Belkanp Press of Harvard University Press.
Skowronek, Stephen. 2020. Presidential Leadership in Political Time: Reprise and Reappraisal. University Press of Kansas.
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