Powerful Questions Needs Powerful Answers, Is the US Presidency Actually a Powerful Dictatorship?

 The US has projected itself as the global leader of democracy through its powerful mass media, huge economy and lavish military expenditures. A closer look reveals that the country requires extensive reform before it can claim to be a true democracy. Democratic reform should begin with the presidency.

The presidency of the United States has a surprisingly undemocratic selection process. In my previous article on American democracy, I pointed out that the president is not elected by popular vote but by the electoral college and how, over time, the presidential election process has become corrupt. 

America's founding fathers feared the presidency's evolution into an imperial office. In fact, that fear was the driving force behind the separation of powers into three distinct branches of government: the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary. We traditionally call this the "checks and balances" system. Each component of government can challenge the actions of another unit. For example, the judiciary can overturn unconstitutional laws drafted by the legislature or overrule acts contravening the law by the executive. This can happen both at the state and federal levels.

In Washington, the president can veto legislation proposed by the Congress. At the same time, Congress has the power to override presidential vetoes and confirm or reject presidential nominations. At first sight, the checks and balances system appears to be an effective way to maintain democracy. However, the system sometimes works out differently than initially intended. In recent years, it has led to partisan division and logjam.

The Most Powerful Man in the World

Although they are not elected directly by the people, US presidents have the power to make critical decisions via executive orders. On August 24, 2002, President Joe Biden signed an executive order "to cancel $10,000 of student debt for low- to middle-income borrowers." Biden's plan is estimated to cost $400 billion for US taxpayers. Executive orders are sometimes called "instant laws." They do not need Congressional approval. The Supreme Court can overturn them if they are found unconstitutional. However, this is a high bar, and presidents have been usurping the power of Congress.

During his time in the White House, Franklin D. Roosevelt issued 3,721 executive orders. Only five of them were overturned by the Supreme Court. More recently, Donald Trump made executive orders infamous by announcing significant policy changes without Congressional approval.

Even more alarming are the president's nuclear powers. As commander-in-chief of all the US armed forces, the president has exclusive access to the nuclear codes. With the push of a button, he can cause a nuclear holocaust. Should a single human being have the power to destroy the world? As I have pointed out repeatedly in my past articles, the US has an aggressive foreign policy. It meddles in the affairs of other countries. This leads to tensions and even standoffs with other powers such as Iran, Russia and China. An American president could blunder into nuclear war in a crisis. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated this danger. 

The Biden-led NATO supports Ukraine against Russia. This is part of a longstanding American policy. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO expanded east. The "deep state" has taken charge of American foreign policy. Presidents have to do the bidding of the military-industrial complex. In 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower warned against this phenomenon in his parting presidential address. In the context of the Russia-Ukraine War, the US president's nuclear powers have become dangerous.

A Rapidly Deteriorating System

A key reason why the president's office has become all-powerful is because Congress has become dysfunctional. The incessant squabbling between the two political parties makes passing laws extremely difficult. The parties themselves are increasingly divided. It took a historic 15 rounds of voting for Kevin McCarthy to be elected speaker of the House of Representatives. 

Republican lawmakers are so divided right now that pushing through any legislation despite their majority will be challenging. Even if they do, Democrats have a wafer-thin majority in the Senate and can block them. The Democrats are divided and unlikely to push through significant bills in the Senate. This leaves the White House a clear field for executive orders. In this way, the US presidential power and prestige are the envy of dictators. Presidents enjoy unprecedented autocracy and imperial power under the guise of democracy. The president appoints thousands of delegates, who often lack the qualifications necessary for the political positions they assume. The president nominates federal judges, which makes the office extremely powerful. The nomination process has become increasingly political, especially for the Supreme Court. Presidents have been appointing party loyalists to top positions. This is not a new phenomenon. In 1991, George H.W. Bush nominated the infamous Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed his nomination, despite attorney Anita Hill's extensive testimony of Thomas's sexual misconduct. Thomas is in hot water for violating the Court's own judicial ethics. Trump sparked outrage when he nominated Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused of attempted rape. Presidents have not only been appointing shady judges, but they have also been benefiting family members. Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, profited immensely from dealings with the Saudis. This might not have been illegal, but it was undoubtedly immoral. Such is the president's power that Trump and Kushner were never held to account.

Today, the presidency needs to be more powerful and accountable to the people. Reforms to the system are long overdue. Otherwise, troubles lie ahead. An unrestrained, all-powerful presidency is not sustainable long term. 

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[Hannah Gage edited this piece.]