This passivity, this failure of creative administration, is not at all what the president’s critics feared. They feared executive overreach—and with some justification. The only American presidents with the temerity to argue that the president’s actions are by definition legal have been Richard Nixon and Donald Trump. Even Andrew Jackson argued only that the Supreme Court had no ability to enforce its decisions, not that it had no basis to judge.
President Trump’s failures during the COVID-19 pandemic have been legion, but they have not been the result of executive overreach. In fact, he has been incredibly slow to use those powers available to a president. He has not organized governors or international efforts or driven legislation, all traditional presidential actions during crises. When Surgeon General Jerome Adams, a political novice, tells the public that “these guidelines are a national stay-at-home order,” he sounds more like an imperial president than Trump does.
It’s mysterious that the president wouldn’t take a more activist role, since executive actions redound to presidential credit. Alexander Hamilton argued in “Federalist No. 70” that “energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government.” Crises expand executive power; in such moments, presidents typically assume that they should do more—and the public usually agrees. That is why biographers and historians tend to focus disproportionately on wars and other calamities. Trump is showing no such inclination to take charge. He summarized his reaction at the White House lectern: “Governors are supposed to be doing a lot of this work.” So timid has been the president’s action that the head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors complained, “This situation is insane. It’s insane. Can you imagine in World War II everybody trying to outbid each other for what they need? We need to have one person, one operation that facilitates this whole thing.”
Except during national emergencies, the more common complaint is that the White House is too strong relative to the other branches. Fear of a presidency burgeoning beyond its constitutionally prescribed role took root in the Nixon years, with Schlesinger, a historian of the Kennedy era, coining the phrase “imperial presidency” and capturing the anxiety of the times. Schlesinger worried that America’s persistent involvement overseas permitted the president to leapfrog over the Founders’ central preoccupation, which was circumscribing the arbitrary exercise of executive power.
America’s Founders expected Congress to be the dominant branch of government, and established separation of powers to allow the president and the courts as checks on Congress. Schlesinger, too, argued that a more activist Congress is the constitutional port of first resort—that is, the place where those seeking to change public policy should begin their efforts. After Watergate, Congress enacted legislation constraining the executive branch so effectively that Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford, complained that the United States risked an “imperiled presidency.”