THE BLOG
01/23/2016 06:31 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2017

The Seductive Illusion of Presidential Power

Joshua Lott via Getty Images

Americans, angry at the inability of politicians and political institutions to address their concerns, seem in search of a savior. They yearn for someone to take charge. On the right, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are leading the anti-establishment crusade. On the left, Bernie Sanders has taken up the torch. Their message is one of strength, power and the promise to shake up the system. Yet this poses two problems -- or should -- for frustrated voters.

First, since the left harbors frightful memories of the excesses of the George W. Bush presidency and the right rails at the usurpation of power by Barack Obama, why do voters think the solution is a powerful president? Admittedly, voters may like power in the presidency when the incumbent is of their own party, but that means the half of America that voted for someone else does not. It's also worth noting that the "imperial presidency" has not actually been welcome when it has shown itself, even among members of the president's own party. Lyndon Johnson, who tried to rule from the oval office like he did in the Senate, decided against trying for a second term because his use of power in Vietnam failed so miserably and alienated even his democratic base. Richard Nixon found himself isolated on the road to impeachment, including by his own party, after deciding that power gave him the right to act illegally.

Second, the demand for a powerful leader raises unreasonably high expectations. Whoever becomes president will not be able, in our current political climate, to deliver on most of the boldest promises made as a candidate. This inability is also, of course, built into our constitutional system. The Framers were afraid of executive authority and expected Congress to be the dominant branch. To ensure they could limit presidential over-reach, they built in multiple ways to frustrate presidents, especially strong ones. While Congress seems to lack the power or ability to produce positive change, it does not lack the power to stop change. The result, especially when Congress is polarized and paralyzed, is almost certain to be a "failed presidency" in the minds of voters, sparking the next round of cynicism about government and, predictably, the next round of calls for power in the presidency.

If voters want a reformation of government, they must look for more fundamental change than electing a "strong" leader. Power navigates to the presidency when the legislative branch is too divided or too weak to get things done. If we can't fix Congress, we'll continue the conditions that lead presidents to strike out on their own, only to be reined in by Congress, which if it can agree on nothing else will at least protect its Constitutional prerogatives.

Surprisingly absent from current candidate debates are questions and conversation about what it will take to make Congress more effective. Presidential candidates show little understanding about why recent Congresses have proved ineffective and the changes in everything from redistricting, campaign finance, cross-party relationships and Congressional operations needed to turn the legislative body into a better functioning part of the governmental system -- one that can balance and lessen the need for a too-powerful president.

Also missing is discussion about what behavior a president will need to demonstrate to decrease the animus that has characterized presidential-congressional relationships for so long. Pabulum about "reaching across the aisle" is devoid of specifics and almost laughable given the way candidates criticize the very body that they will depend on once elected. Indeed, when disdain for the political establishment is part of the sales pitch to angry voters, it creates for the president-elect the expectation that reaching out to Congress is tantamount to weakness.

Presidential contenders act as if the force of their will is enough to get America back on the "right track." Absent a more sophisticated understanding and a more robust approach to the problems of national governance, the next president is consigned to disappoint us again.