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Is expanding presidential power inherently bad for democracy?

The fallout from President Trump’s national emergency declaration over immigration is sparking questions about the scope of executive power. For analysis, Judy Woodruff talks to Andrew Rudalevige, professor of government at Bowdoin College and author of “The New Imperial Presidency: Renewing Presidential Power after Watergate,” and Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    On this President's Day holiday, we're taking a look at presidential powers and how they have changed over time.

    We're joined now by two presidential historians Douglas Brinkley, professor of history at Rice University and author of several books on the presidency. And Andrew Rudalevige, he's professor of government at Bowdoin College and the author of "The New Imperial Presidency: Renewing Presidential Power after Watergate."

    And welcome to both of you.

    Andrew Rudalevige, let me start with you.

    How much more powerful is the American presidency today than it was either in the earliest days of this country or even 150 years ago?

  • Andrew Rudalevige:

    Well, infinitely more powerful than at the time of the Constitutional Convention.

    If you think of the very title president, that comes from the word presider. There was no idea, I think, that the president would be the main decider, as George W. Bush styled himself.

    The real growth is in the 20th and now the 21st century. You have the great expansiveness of the scope and size of government. Most of that's in the executive branch, and so the president has more means, many more staff, many more people to help him carry out his preferences.

    And you also have, over time, the delegation of great amounts of power to the president by Congress, including things that are specifically delegated to the Congress by the Constitution, trade power, for example.

    In other areas, presidents have sort of pushed hard to try to take over the war power, for example. And Congress on the whole has been pretty supine about that.

    So it's a great growth of power in fits and starts, but, certainly compared, to the founding, a much more powerful office than was anticipated.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Douglas Brinkley, is this mainly because presidents have been grabbing for more power, or is it because Congress has ceded it, or is it a combination?

  • Douglas Brinkley:


    I mean, I think it's important to think about when Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus in 1861. He had a very good reason to, the Civil War. Then you have the emancipation of slaves under Lincoln.

    And Theodore Roosevelt is really the beginning of this. It used to be called the executive mansion. He named it the White House. And from 1901 to 1909, T.R. used a lot of executive orders, some like going into Panama without Congress. He went to the Grand Canyon and said, save it. Congress didn't want it as a national park.

    There was zinc, asbestos, and copper there, and so he declared it a national monument and as a way station on using executive power, until eventually Congress would take it as a national park.

    Following T.R., you see Franklin D. Roosevelt using executive power all the time, sometimes in positive ways that look well in history, like when he save Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with a national — as a national monument in the middle of World War II, but then, alas, the Japanese internment camps, which was upheld by the courts, that he was allowed to do that kind of roundup of American citizens.

    And just — it's an increasing of presidential power, to the degree now that presidents, so matter who they are, have a 40 or 50 percent approval rating, and Congress is often at 15, 20 percent approval rating. We are a country of presidential power.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Andrew Rudalevige, is it that the American people have watched this happen over time and have just felt, OK, this is just inevitable, it's just going to get — we're going to have a more powerful presidency?

  • Andrew Rudalevige:

    Well, there are good and bad reasons for a powerful presidency.

    The government, the role of the United States are much bigger in the world and domestically than they had been prior to the 20th century. So you have some questions of executive efficiency. It's not always terrible when Congress delegates power to the president.

    On the other hand, especially since, I would say, the 1960s, changes in nominating procedures mean there's a lot more focus on the individual. Presidents have to promise a lot more individually, and then they are under pressure to live up to those promises.

    The gap between the expectations of the presidency and the actual power is somewhat large. I think presidents on the whole cannot carry out their promises to the degree that they think they can running for office.

    President Trump's emergency declaration is a pretty good example of that, frankly. But, yes, people tend to support presidents acting dramatically. And, to that degree, presidents will continue to do so.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what President Trump has done, Douglas Brinkley, is one the reasons I wanted to talk to the two of you, because people are — some are referring to it as an unprecedented move, an overreach.

    But we really wanted to put it in context and look at how this has — how presidents' desire and determination to take more power under themselves has — it's been happening for a long time.

  • Douglas Brinkley:

    Well, yes.

    I mean, Richard Nixon created a lot of problems, I mean, abuse of power, the movement to impeach him. And out of that grew the War Powers Resolution of 1973, which supposed to make sure you don't go to war without Congress' approval.

    Well, alas, Ronald Reagan went into Grenada in 1983 without Congress' approval, and George Herbert Walker Bush went into Panama in 1989 without it. So you get to see things get watered down. Presidents act, and let everybody else decide what to do later.

    What we're debating now in the United States concerning Donald Trump is another post-Nixon event, the National Emergencies Act of 1976. And in that regard, we have had 59 of these since 1976, but none like what Donald Trump's doing.

    He — this is a big political move by Donald Trump. It's not going to be construed as a real emergency, in the way Harry Truman tried to grab the steel industry back in 1952 and it wasn't a real emergency, because presidents can't seize private property.

    And if he is — if the Trump administration's hell-bent on grabbing ranchlands, building fencing along private property and along environmental zones, it's just going to rain lawsuits on them, and it'll — it'll end up in the Supreme Court.

    But Congress is supposed to have — Congress is supposed to have the purse. It's supposed to run the money. Donald Trump now is doing something unprecedented by grabbing the funding from Congress and reallocating it in his own — with his own whims.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Andrew Rudalevige, so, this is a — this stands apart from what other presidents have done to take more power unto themselves?

  • Andrew Rudalevige:

    Well, Professor Brinkley talked about the post-Watergate regime, where you had a real effort by Congress to push back on the powers of the president, not just in war powers, but intelligence oversight and covert action and the budget, impoundment of congressional funds, ethics with the creation of the independent counsel, and the National Emergencies Act, right?

    All of these things were designed to rein in presidential power. But presidents keep pushing, right? They are — as I said, they have lots of incentives to keep pushing. And so, really, what's happened is that Congress has not pushed back.

    The National Emergencies Act is a great example of a law that was created to rein in presidents, but has ended up empowering them, partly because Congress has not lived up to its own responsibilities that it wrote into the law, right, to review these emergencies every six months, to come into session to actually consider them in a serious way.

    So we will see if that happens now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to…

  • Andrew Rudalevige:

    Certainly, the fact that this emergency — sorry.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I just want to say — I have only got about 40 seconds left.

    I want to ask each of you in brief, I mean, is it fair to say it's good or bad for our democracy that presidents — our presidents have more power, or is — you just have to take a case-by-case basis?

    Doug Brinkley?

  • Douglas Brinkley:

    I think you have to go case by case, but this is an overreach that Donald Trump's doing, in my opinion, because it's — he's circumventing, doing an end-run round around both the Constitution and Congress.

    But we will see. He has a conservative Supreme Court. And it might go — if it gets there, it might end up being a 5-4 decision in his favor.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Andrew Rudalevige, what about that?

  • Andrew Rudalevige:

    It's bad when Congress gives power away thoughtlessly. Congress has its own authority under the Constitution. It should use it.

    So, if it hands it over to the president without thinking about it, that's bad. If it thinks about it, if there's a case where it's relevant and useful, then I'm OK with that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Wonderful insights.

    Andrew Rudalevige, Douglas Brinkley, thank you both. We appreciate it. Thank you.

  • Douglas Brinkley:

    Thank you.

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