Presidents DayFebruary 20th, 2017

The Donald Trump presidency exposes a serious deficiency in our constitutional system. Despite numerous safeguards adopted by the authors of our charter–checks and balances, as we call them–the president of our union of sovereign states now wields imperial power, far beyond anything the founders could have contemplated. Backed by military force of unprecedented destructive power, the US chief executive can decree the political course of just about every nation on earth. Letting that power reside in the hands of a vanity-driven real estate speculator frightens many people.

Far from a world order with the US president at the head of it, the government created at the founding was one of enumerated powers, controlled by the people acting through Congress. The founders’ writings tell us that the president’s role was to supervise the officers and departments created by Congress to administer the government, always according to rules acceptable to the people, expressed as the will of Congress.

Observers around the world claimed to be startled when the first president George Washington vacated his office in favor of his successor at the expiration of his second four-year term, but locals knew that Washington wouldn’t have dared to assume authority not granted by the Constitution. Neither would Congress ever have permitted such a usurpation.

Right up through Dwight Eisenhower, presidents have been held fairly closely to the rules. Franklin Roosevelt had to wait for Japan to attack before he could join World War II. Truman had to call the Korean War a “police action” to keep it legal, and the courts kept him from taking over private industry. Things changed abruptly in the 1960’s. Since Kennedy, there’s been no such delicacy, as successive chief executives simply seized power, putting the country through war, debt and discontent as a result.

Not that presidents before Kennedy did much better. Most presidents have been vain, ingratiating crackpots who have done more harm than good. Our presidents have proved that the ability to get votes is by no means a qualification to govern.

History tells us we need additional restraints on the power of the executive branch. We probably ought to have three presidents–the people’s top three choices–with equal authority, acting by majority rule. They could check and balance each other and guard against the neo-dictatorial regime we tolerate now, one that conflicts starkly with the fundamental values of republican government.