The Not All Powerful Presidency

Both Congress and presidents overestimate the power of the Oval Office.

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President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House.

President Obama has fantasies of "going Bulworth" on Congress and Washington, letting loose with everything he really thinks and trying to do what he really wants, despite the political repercussions, The New York Times reports. And congressional Republicans see Obama not so much like the fictional politician in the old Warren Betty movie, but as Richard Nixon, forced to resign in disgrace because of the Watergate scandal and reviled for his overuse of executive power.

The disconnect here is not just the fundamental one – that Obama thinks he has the right to make policy pursuant to being duly elected (twice!) by voters in a democracy, while the GOP won't be satisfied until Obama's presidency is declared to be invalid. It's that both Congress and presidents have vastly overestimated how much power a president really has.

Candidates make this mistake most commonly and innocently. They run for office promising all sorts of change, all kinds of innovation and job-creating policies. Then they get into the Oval Office and realize how little authority they actually have to achieve those ends.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Congress can – and recently, has – stop pretty much anything the president wants to do, and the courts have the authority to undo things as well (though hopefully not on political or partisan grounds, as is the case with the legislative branch no matter who is in control of it). The only way a president can just declare something done is to issue an executive order, and even there, he is limited. The other way is to do something illegal or of questionable legal basis (Nixon may be more infamous for Watergate, but it was the secret bombings of Cambodia that really go to the issue of abuse of executive power).

Congress is meant to be a check and balance on the executive branch, and has exercised that power to its legal limit during the Obama presidency. They have threatened filibusters on even inconsequential bills and nominations, making even more laughable the idea that Obama should have been able to get his agenda through Congress in the early part of his administration because his party "controlled" the Senate. Neither party controls the Senate, and if you had to pick one, it is probably the minority party which has more power.

Even when Obama has managed to get a law passed, the Senate has acted to keep it from being implemented, such as by holding up the nomination of eminent health care policy leader Dr. Donald Berwick to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Obama ultimately put him in the job as a "recess appointment" – arguably not what the founders meant when they created the concept of a recess appointment. But the Senate was clearly not going to allow a vote on his nomination. Berwick finally resigned as it became clear he would not get a permanent confirmation.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

And what about the so-called "bully pulpit?" This is a term commonly used by the media, which, in its glee to cover the federal government as a sporting event rather than focus on policy details, assumes that Obama or any president can simply stand up in the Rose Garden and demand that Congress do something. And if he can't do it, he is termed "weak" or without "juice."

The reality is that few presidents had such ability, and even then, special circumstances existed that gave them that authority. Lyndon B. Johnson, for example, had the political tool of playing Southern Democrats and Republicans against each other. Obama faces a country that is not only politically polarized, but regionally divided. He doesn't even have the weapon of last resort – denying funds for local project, or insisting that certain items be attached to so-called "must-pass" legislation like the debt limit. There is no "must pass" legislation anymore, and there are members who either don't care about sending the country or world back into recession by refusing to pay the U.S. government's bill, or just don't understand it. And Obama can't make them.

This country created a democracy because the founding fathers wanted to get away from a tyrannical monarchy. Why is it that so many people still believe the president has the power of a king?

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