Under the U.S. Constitution, presidential power is limited and subject to checks and balances. Presidents are accountable to the rule of law—at least in theory. However, over the years, presidents have found ways to break away from limits. President Harry Truman went to war with Korea, despite the fact that this action lacked congressional approval. President George W. Bush set aside criminal laws prohibiting torture and warrantless surveillance. President Barack Obama ordered military action in Libya and against ISIS without congressional approval.
SPA’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies (CCPS) hosted a panel event on Feb. 2 focused on the challenge of setting limits on presidential power. The event was moderated by SPA Assistant Professor, Chris Edelson, an expert on the subject. Panelists included Amanda Terkel, politics managing editor and senior political reporter for The Huffington Post; Joe Gaeta, senior advisor and director of oversight for U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI); and Ian Millhiser, senior fellow, Center for American Progress and justice editor, Thinkprogress.
Panelists discussed democracy, the flaws of the U.S. Constitution, and the label that some experts have given President Donald Trump of “populist authoritarian.”
“The word authoritarian does not necessarily mean that people’s day-to-day lives are being repressed,” said Millhiser. “What authoritarianism means is the absence of the ability to bring about meaningful change through elections.”
Edelson said that authoritarians typically reject the rule of law as a limit on their authority. He also suggested that Trump’s presidency poses a direct threat to constitutional democracy.
The constitutional system depends on each branch of government acting to set limits on power. When it comes to presidential national security power, Congress is best positioned to act, but it is often deferential. This means that the boundary of power can be pushed by a president when Congress fails to weigh in. The question the panelists pointed to now is whether the constitutional system of checks and balances will stand up to the challenge President Trump presents.
To learn more about presidential power, you watch the entire event here, or watch this SPA Policy Explainer on presidential power from November 2016.