Campaigns Are All About Promises, But How Much Power Does The President Really Wield?

Aug 15, 2016

The presidency has grown more influential over time. Some view this as an inevitable response to war and economic emergency.  Yet others see it as a sign of government dysfunction. We take a step back from the current electoral fray, and explore how and why the office has changed over time, right up through the Obama Administration.

Our guest host for this program is Dean Spiliotes, Civic Scholar in the School of Arts and Science at Southern New Hampshire University and author of


“The executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.”    (Article II, Section 1, the United States Constitution).



Promises, Promises…Presidential candidates make them by the multitudes, but can they keep them?

To what extent, for instance, can a president reverse the actions of his/her predecessor?  Or evade the constraints of Congress?   Our guests addressed these questions and more.

No one is ever going to run for president and say well, I have a modest agenda that I hope to enact if Congress goes along with it. You promise big things because that’s what gets you elected. Then you get into office and you discover how hard it can be to do that. Lots of Presidents talk about a learning curve that takes two, three, even four years. Some don’t feel comfortable in the office until their second term.  Chris Galdieri, 

The presidency has grown more influential over the years, particularly during times of national emergency. Some say this is a natural development. Others, however, complain about an overreaching executive.

Concerns over executive power go way back – to the country’s founding. In fact, the Articles of Confederation did not include an executive. Blame that on King George.

Chris Galdieri:  They had just had what they felt was an oppressive experience under King George. They then moved away from executive power with the Articles of Confederation --a government that just had no executive whatsoever -- but they realized that didn’t work. And so, when they sat down to write the Constitution, they were confronting this question of how  you create an office that has enough power to get things done but is constrained enough that it’s not too powerful, that  it doesn’t encroach on people’s freedom.  They never quite resolved that issue in a way that set real limits on the office.

President Obama has been criticized particularly by Republicans for taking executive action or issuing executive orders – at the expense of doing the hard work of negotiating with Congress.

Dan Bush:  He had some early successes, but, after that, when he faced a lot of opposition, particularly from Republicans in the House as well as in the Senate, he’s turned towards executive orders and actions to try and move his agenda along.

What’s the difference between an executive order and executive action?

DB:  It’s a little bit murky. An executive order can mean anything from a regulation, like the attempted immigration proposal that Obama signed, or it can be as simple as calling for renaming a post office.  Most of the time, when these things get pushed through they’re intended to get as much as possible done.

How do presidents compare when it comes to exerting that kind of power?

DB:  These became a more common presidential tool after the turn of the 20th Century. Teddy Roosevelt issued over 1,000 executive orders. FDR issued close to 4,000 (over four terms).   In the last couple of administrations it’s been a couple of hundred or so.  They’re within close range of each other.  

Political polarization has played a role, prompting presidents to bypass a gridlocked Congress. But executive actions have their challenges. President Obama issued sweeping executive actions on immigration, after Congress failed to pass legislation.   What happened?

DB:  The U.S. Supreme Court essentially blocked his action on immigration.

The expansion of presidential power has been more prevalent in times of military emergencies and foreign conflicts.  The U.S. has not declared war officially since World War II, yet we have been involved in quite a few military activities.

CG:  In recent years, Congress has been really reluctant to question presidents, particularly when it comes to foreign conflicts.  A few years ago, Congress did not support President Obama’s Syria policy and yet they were not going to cut off funding for it.

Lilly Goren: Under the Constitution, the president has the capacity to run military activity. Congress appropriates money and is the venue for actual declaration of war.  Congress constitutionally must review military allocations every two years. It’s very rare that Congress pulls back on military actions.

President Obama sent a surge of troops to Afghanistan in 2009 -- to the chagrin of some House and Senate members who wanted more input.

DB: This was him, at the end of the day, by himself, making a final decision on a consequential foreign military action.

Congress has also played a role in the expansion of presidential power.

LG:  It’s not just the president aggrandizing power; it’s also Congress saying, well, you know, we’re not going to deal with this. We’ll just write a vague law and let the president deal with this.

And when candidates promise to undo a predecessor's actions, how realistic is that?

CG: It’s not that realistic. A new president would often find that a lot of what a previous president did is really sticky, that it would be really difficult to unilaterally roll back. A great example would be the Iran nuclear deal... a deal that’s been in place with another country for a couple of years is really hard to undo; it has a lot of moving parts. 

Outside of entirely undoing a deal, can a president adversely affect it? How about Obamacare?  

DB: They can take a targeted approach and try to pick apart smaller parts of the program. But it’s very hard to do, especially with pieces of legislation or executive actions that really reach into all of our lives. And healthcare are is a good example of that. Donald Trump has promised repeatedly that he would repeal and replace Obamacare. But in reality that’s difficult to do. And of course each new president has to face a new political landscape. 

A common misconception of presidential power among voters? A president has lots of time to get a lot done. 

DB: In the presidency there’s really about a 15 month period where you can get one or two or three big bills passed. After that it becomes much harder to do that. And that’s when you see presidents turning towards other means -- specifically, executive actions -- to get as much of their agenda through as possible.