There are two types of American presidents: the ones whose biographies line the shelves at Barnes and Noble, and the ones everybody liked. There’s a reason Grover Cleveland isn’t chiseled into Mount Rushmore for posterity, and there’s a reason families don’t plan vacations around seeing the Rutherford B. Hayes monument.
Throughout history, great presidents have treated executive power like silly putty — stretching it to its very limits — out of a determination to achieve their goals.
The mushroom cloud of angry punditry left behind from President Trump’s national emergency declaration is not a brand new thing in American presidential politics; it’s as old as the office itself. All great presidents drove up the blood pressure of Washington elites by breaking precedents to expand executive power, but that precedent-breaking created the office as we know it today.
On paper, the Article II executive is much weaker than Congress, but in the modern era, the presidency is enormous. That didn’t just happen on its own. The presidency is created less by Article II of the Constitution than by the 44 men who have actually held the office.
In 1793, George Washington issued a proclamation of neutrality. If CNN had been around back then, the jabbering heads on New Day would have had steam coming out of their ears! The whole news cycle would have been Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe doing media hits asking “where does George Washington get off declaring neutrality without any enumeration of that power in article two?” The ink on the Constitution was still wet, and what was the very first president — the father of the country — up to? An end-run around Congress!
Later, Thomas Jefferson — who was angrier than anyone about Washington exercising extra-constitutional executive powers-became president and found his own creative way around the Constitution to purchase the Louisiana territory. Federalists who were cool with Washington unilaterally proclaiming neutrality, suddenly became strict-constructionists when the Democratic-Republicans took power.
Jefferson’s Federalist critics insisted that purchasing land was not a power enumerated to any branch of government under the Constitution. Obstructing the Louisiana Purchase to own the Democratic-Republicans seems stupid from a 2019 perspective, but if Twitter had been around back then, #Resist and #NeverJefferson would have been trending.
Andrew Jackson caused congressional heads to explode by using his veto power twelve times. It simply wasn’t done! Precedent said the veto was there so the president could check Congress’s ability to pass unconstitutional legislation. Jackson decided he would use it for ideological purposes.
A political cartoon from 1833 depicts Jackson in full “king” regalia — crown, scepter and robe — clutching the power of veto in his left hand.
Presidents Filmore, Pierce, and Buchanan stayed in their lanes. Their presidencies from 1850-1861 marked a decade of executive restraint dominated by the lions of Congress — which facilitated useless compromises on the issue of slavery while the country fell to pieces.
Then, along came Abraham Lincoln who expanded executive power more than any president before him to put the country back together. There’s a swampy assumption floating through the elite in Washington that compromise should always be the goal. But it wasn’t compromise that saved the Union, it was executive “overreach.”
When Theodore Roosevelt wanted to send the Great White Fleet around the world as a show of American Naval superiority, Congress refused to appropriate the gas money. A lesser president would have yielded to Congress and abandoned the idea, but Roosevelt was no lesser president, he was a Mount Rushmore president. So, what was Teddy’s solution? He sent the Great White Fleet halfway around the world and dared Congress not to pony up the money to bring it back.
President Trump’s state of emergency declaration isn’t illegal or unconstitutional, but it does break precedent. This is the first time that a president has used the state of emergency declaration after failing to get what he wanted from Congress.
But strong executives have shown us that precedents are not a proper check because we often send determined and creative individuals to the Oval Office — men who care more about accomplishing their goals than about good manners. Whether he succeeds or not, President Trump’s national emergency gambit has put him in the company of presidents who have shaped the office.
If no political cartoonist has satirized you as a king, you’re doing it wrong.
Eddie Zipperer (@EddieZipperer) is assistant professor of political science at Georgia Military College.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.