Is It Time for the U.S. to Rein in the Presidency?

Two historians consider whether it’s time to raise the possibility of decentralization amid frustrations with the federal government.

Evan Vucci / AP

The election of Donald Trump, and the early days of his presidency, have driven many Americans to rummage through history in search of context and understanding. Trump himself has been compared to historical figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Henry Ford, and from Andrew Jackson to Benito Mussolini. His steps have been condemned as unprecedented by his critics, and praised as historic by his supporters.

To place contemporary events in perspective, we turned to a pair of historians of the United States. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author, most recently, of The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society. Morton Keller is a professor emeritus of history at Brandeis University. He has written or edited more than 15 books, including Obama’s Time: A History. They’ll be exchanging views periodically on how to understand Trump, his presidency, and this moment in political time. —Yoni Appelbaum

Morton Keller: Julian, as historians, we have a special obligation to occasionally draw back from our task of trying to put the concerns of the day in perspective, and try to do the same for the larger state of our government.

President Trump and the Democrats, terrorism, immigration, the environment, race and gender, inequality, and the economy dominate current political discourse. But there are other systemic issues to which I think we should turn our attention. These are: One, the current state and future prospects of the imperial presidency, and two, the current state and future prospects of the imperial bureaucracy.

The modern American presidency and regulatory-welfare-warfare state date from FDR, the Great Depression and the New Deal, and World War II. Existing judicial and congressional restraints were substantially reduced during the decades of Democratic ascendancy, the demands of the civil-rights revolution, the steady growth of entitlements, and the Cold War. Democrats Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, each in their own way, added to the scope of the office, whereas Republicans Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and the Bushes diminished neither presidential authority nor the expanding state.

So far, Trump's conduct of his office has been hardly more self-effacing. The hostile media is as quick to dwell on his assertions of power as it was to minimize Obama's growing taste for direct action. This may well have the effect of strengthening the view that the presidency could be reduced in its scope and authority. There have been foretastes of this: LBJ's decision not to run again in 1968; Nixon's near-impeachment in 1974; Clinton's impeachment in 1998. Now it is well within the realm of probability that both Republican and Democratic members of Congress could find common ground in a more constrained presidency.

The reassertion of congressional and judicial authority, and a renewed, state-based American federalism, seem to me more within reach than at any time in living memory. True, the likelihood of this happening may not be very high. But Trump's limited appeal, the obvious inability of the present system of American government to respond to popular wants and needs, and the growing evidence that the problem is international and not just American, make it worth discussing.

Consider the recent impeachments of the presidents of Brazil and South Korea; the likely election of Emmanuel Macron, a young politician with no attachment to the existing party system, to the French presidency; and the widespread British discontent, reflected in Thursday's election results, with both Prime Minister Theresa May and her Labor challenger Jeremy Corbyn.

The social democratic welfare state shows increasing signs of being past its sell-by date. So do the populist-nationalist appeal of Marine Le Pen's National Front—and the far-leftism of Greece's Syriza party. This rejection of authoritarian styles of government (not everywhere; see Turkey and Hungary) goes hand-in-hand with the quest for more decentralized government (see the new super-mayoralties in England, and the relative popularity of some American governors compared to just about all congressional leaders).

Another attraction of a strengthened federalism is that it attracts more support across party lines than do most other contemporary issues. California Democrats and Texas Republicans are likely to look benignly on rules and laws that increase their states’ authority. A similar decentralization (with appropriate safety nets) of health care might be supported by a bipartisan congressional majority, when the current (or a revised) Obamacare remain resistant to political approval.

It's time—past time—for the dual causes of a lessened presidency and a heightened federalism to be major subjects of our political discourse.

Julian Zelizer: An interesting rumination about some of the potential trends in politics. You lay out a strong case for a potential period of decentralization—away from the imperial presidency, away from a strong welfare state, away from nationalism and toward something smaller and more local.

I agree with much of what you argue, though I am more skeptical about the potential for change (putting aside debates about whether all of these changes are a good thing). As you have taught us in your books, change doesn’t come easily in American politics. Institutions and organizations endure. Presidential elections, presidents, social movements often encounter the persistence of pre-existing regimes.

With some of the issues that you highlight, this might be the case again. For all of the uproar over President Trump’s aggressive use of presidential authority, it is easy to imagine that when he is gone, politicians in both parties will settle with the status quo rather than changing it. After the 2008 election, with all of the uproar over President Bush’s vast expansion of the national security state, we didn’t really see many transformations after a historic election that seemed to be a mandate for change. Even during President Nixon’s demise, Congress passed laws reasserting its power (such as the War Powers Act of 1973 and the Budget Reform of 1974)—yet the presidency seems to be doing pretty well. Given that right now Republicans control Congress as well, they might not be willing to do that much to reform government if they anticipate keeping control once Trump is gone.

The social welfare state is certainly under attack, here and elsewhere, yet we have also seen how the popularity of many programs, such as Social Security and Medicaid, proves to be a powerful counterforce to conservative retrenchment. I do think federalism is enjoying a period of resurgence—with liberals also turning to states and localities as the engine for progressive change, not simply the right—federal programs still hold considerable appeal. I don’t think that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt has lost the argument just yet.

As for the kind of right-wing nationalism that has flared all over the globe, I think that many people hope that you are correct. But let’s wait and see. Few people thought that the two-terms of the first African American president, someone who is pretty progressive on international and domestic policy, would end with the election of Donald Trump and a right-wing, nationalist, America-First campaign that seemed like a throwback to the  era of George Wallace.

Keller: It's nice to see so high a level of agreement. This suggests that however unlikely a reduced presidency and decentralized government may be, they are worthwhile policy goals, and should be a more conspicuous part of the political dialogue.

I do, however, continue to take exception to your tendency to see our politics today as a confrontation between a generally reasonable Democratic-left and an out-of-control Republican right. To criticize the tone of the over-the-top “resistance” to Trump is not to ignore his manifest defects. Those defects do not justify the increasingly obscene, out-of-control quality of that criticism, however complicit he was in injecting those strains into our political discourse.

The closest comparison in my historian's recollection was the ugly, obscene innuendo that the unreconstructed right applied to FDR in the 1930s. Before some of our more excitable knee-jerk readers accuse me of equating FDR and Trump, I assure them that I have no such intent in mind.

My point is this: I foresee no upgrading of our current degraded political dialogue until both sides pull back, which I don't expect to happen until one or the other of them concludes that it costs them more than it gains. The reaction to the Kathy Griffin photograph is encouraging; the success of the more scurrilous late-night talk show hosts, and Trump's continuing unpresidential blogging, is not.

Aside from that, we seem to be in general accord on this matter.

Zelizer: I still think that the alliance between the right and the mainstream of the GOP has become much closer than the left and the Democratic leadership. It's fair to distinguish. Everything is not equivalent. It is difficult to imagine Democrats nominating anyone as far out as Trump. But in the context of the Tea Party generation—Trump made sense.

The opposition to Trump, who ran a campaign that revolved around xenophobia, nativism, Islamophobia, sexism and a real hostility to so many segments of the nation is very different than the opposition to FDR. The current opposition is driven by serious and legitimate concerns about the possibility of wrongdoing in the election and obstruction of justice that are not simply partisan or ideological. Trump is not your ordinary president and concerns now extend far beyond the kind of partisan tensions that are routine in Washington D.C.