It’s been a rough year for the American presidency.
Following a controversial election, Donald Trump has seemingly done everything in his power to make a laughingstock of the executive office. He’s crass, immature and some say unfit for power. After a long string of departures and criminal charges leading back to the doorstep of the White House, it seems that Donald Trump has taken an America that was respected worldwide and turned it into a laughingstock in less than one election cycle.
But this is a dangerous assumption to make. Trump isn’t a toddler having a tantrum. He’s an intense conservative radical, with his finger trembling on the nuclear button. He has more power at his disposal than any other American leader to come before him and half of the country doesn’t even like him.
How did this happen?
This isn’t just about Donald Trump, either. In fact, that’s the last time his name will be mentioned in this article. No, this is a problem buried so deeply in our political system that it’s been affecting us since the Cold War. The American presidency is far too powerful.
When George W. Bush came into office in 2001, he was the first president of a new era. The Cold War was in the rearview mirror, the Clinton scandal was fading into obscurity and “Independent Woman (Part 1)” by Destiny’s Child was the No. 1 hit of the year. America was ready for a fresh start. And then, almost immediately, the world was flipped on its head by the most lethal terrorist attack in American history. In the wake of the 9/11 attack, Bush passed sweeping military authorization that gave him the power to put troops on the ground in Iraq less than three days after the attack – without Congressional approval. He also passed the USA Patriot Act into law – but we’ll get to that.
Through a broader lens, Bush’s post-9/11 foreign policy was the logical conclusion of 40 years of American presidents slowly but surely increasing the power of the executive office. During the Cold War it was understandable – the speed of military action in the late 20th century caused significant changes to the way the presidency operates. Suddenly the president was capable of ending the world with the turn of a key. Maybe this was too much power, but the speed of modern launch systems made it impossible for the fate of the free world to be determined by committee. The decision had to rest with the highest power in the land, and as a result, that power was heightened.
But the Cold War is over, and what we need from our government more than ever is transparency – not the dramatic action that Bush championed as the key to the defeat of terrorism. Fifteen years later this action is directly responsible for the deaths of over 200,000 civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan and perhaps many more worldwide. That’s a great deal of damage to hang over the office of the American presidency, a great many Iraqi and Afghan lives destroyed forever.
This damage only evolved with the election of Barack Obama, who quickly escalated the drone war into Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Obama also oversaw an increased surveillance presence in the United States during his presidency by renewing the Patriot Act in 2008 and then again in 2011. This was a new and dramatic expansion of presidential power, allowing the FBI to spy on the communications of American citizens. The increase in activity sanctioned by the Patriot Act was a bold and drastic move that backfired on the Obama administration almost immediately due to the work of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden. Finally, the extent of the abuse of power had been laid bare.
And we did nothing.
Nothing has changed. The Patriot Act was renewed by Obama in 2015 and will assumedly be renewed again in 2019. The Authorization of use of Military Force Act is still in effect today. The presidency is as powerful as it's ever been, with no increased transparency or forthcomings from anyone involved at the higher levels of government.
The American presidency is one of the most influential offices in the world right now. It oversees incredible power, both at home and abroad. And while a powerful presidency may have been a necessity 50 years ago, it has become increasingly clear that the office has abused its power, at the expense of the citizens it was formed to serve. We’re in a new age now; we don’t need our presidents to be Reagans or Clintons. What we need from the presidency right now is transparency, awareness and self-limitation. It shouldn’t be much to ask.
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