Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Office of U.S. President Is Too Powerful

Has any U.S. president made you angry, anxious, or afraid?

Is there a president—past or present—whose narcissism irritated you? Has there ever been a presidential candidate whose actions made you feel nervous, insecure, or terrified? Or one who was so dishonest that you couldn’t understand why anyone would vote for them? What if I told you that the candidate or the person occupying the office is not the problem? The problem is that the office of president has become too powerful. And, power attracts the most ruthless people.

The office of president was designed by the Constitution to be so weak that it wouldn’t matter who was elected. The Constitution of the United States begins with the words “We the People” because the power was to be vested in the citizens via their representatives to Congress. That is why members of the House of Representatives are only elected to serve two years. If the people aren’t feeling that their voice is represented, they only have to wait two years to vote in a replacement.

Your Power Was Stolen

The power of the people, however, has been usurped by Executive Orders (EO) issued by the president. Executive orders are not laws. There is no provision in the Constitution authorizing them. Article II, Section 3, Clause 2 of the U.S. Constitution allows the president to make suggestions to Congress on legislation, but that’s it. Congress gets to decide whether or not it can become legislation. Then there is Article II, Section 3, Clause 5 which states that the president “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” This only empowers the president to enforce laws passed by Congress. However, it is this same phrase that has been used by presidents to assume their power to write executive orders.

George Washington issued an executive order to declare Thanksgiving as a holiday. The early EOs were mostly benign, but in May 1861 Abraham Lincoln wrote one to suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus (a court order demanding that a prisoner be delivered to the court and provided with a valid reason for his or her detention). The Supreme Court ruled that Lincoln’s executive order was unconstitutional, but the Army ignored the ruling, and Congress did not contest the decision. This set the precedent for Presidents to abuse the EO.

Never Let a Crisis Go to Waste

 Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain; 1933 US Printing Office
FDR usurped power by issuing 3,721 executive orders.
Source: Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain; 1933 US Printing Office

In the 1930s, Franklin D. Roosevelt vigorously escalated their use by issuing 3,721 executive orders, including the EO that sent 100,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese immigrants to internment camps. Since that time, all presidents have written executive orders that carry the weight of law as if they were passed by Congress. Presidents frequently use a crisis as an excuse to issue an EO.

It has become such a commonplace way to create law that President Bill Clinton’s advisor Paul Begala said, "Stroke of the pen. Law of the land. Kinda cool." And, President Barack Obama declared, “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone, and I can use that pen to sign executive orders.” President George W. Bush wrote an EO that established the Department of Homeland Security, and another that authorized the NSA to listen in on citizens' phone calls without a warrant.

What Happened to the Rule of Law?

Executive orders have gone unchallenged by the American people. Anything that is treated as a law should have to follow the rule of law. Before a rule can be used to deprive a person of their right to life, liberty, or property, it must be debated and fought over in Congress first. The president will have his chance after it has passed both houses of Congress to sign or veto it. America was designed to be a free society where the government is controlled by checks and balances. The president should not be allowed to bypass that system.

The ascendancy of the presidency began its rise over Congress under President Woodrow Wilson, who wrote 1,803 EOs. In 1913, the power of the people, their collective voice via the House of Representatives, was limited to just 435 representatives. According to the Constitution, a census is to be taken every 10 years, and a new Congressional district is to be formed for every 40,000 additional citizens. Today there should be 8,270 members in the House of Representatives.

Here's How to Get Your Power Back

Imagine how loud that voice would be, and how little power the president would have. With 8,270 seats, there would be enough representation for a wide variety of political parties reflecting a great diversity of opinions. Congress members would actually be able to meet and know their constituents. As Henry David Thoreau said in his book Civil Disobedience, “There will never be a really free and enlightened state until the state comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived.”

Corporations would no longer be able to control Congress with campaign donations to a mere 218 members. And, corporate lobbyists would not be able to purchase the opportunity to write legislation favoring their companies over the competition. Best of all, the president would go back to being a figurehead.

If you are tired of dictatorial presidents, then it is time to demand that Congress take back their power of legislation and refuse to allow POTUS to write illegal laws. Executive orders are unconstitutional and do not carry the weight of a just law. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” If Congress won’t take back their power, then it is up to the individual citizen to do it. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state becomes lawless or corrupt.”

In the meantime, the people’s voice will gain more gravitas, if the citizenry clamors for Congress to uncap the House of Representatives.

Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is an innovation/change speaker, author, and consultant.

More from Psychology Today

More from Robert Evans Wilson Jr.

More from Psychology Today