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Friday, January 06, 2017

Has the U.S. Presidency Become a Dictatorship? - Freakonomics

Has the U.S. Presidency Become a Dictatorship? - Freakonomics Freakonomics

"POSNER: like everybody, I have instinctive political reactions, but I try to maintain a distance and try to be objective about things. And often when I think about politics today, I try to think about how someone 100 years from now might think about politics, how a historian looking back — and when we look back, 100 years or 200 years, we often find it very difficult to understand why people seem to get upset about little things that in the end didn’t matter much. And I think it’s important to take that view when thinking about politics today...

“Presidential leadership and the separation of powers.” You argue that the presidents that generally judged as great — Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, you name — are generally the “presidents who most frequently tread on constitutional norms”...

Well, with the benefit of hindsight, the whole constitutional system seems pretty nutty, and we actually know this because some other countries imitated it, which was a big mistake.

So especially in Latin America, a bunch of countries imitated our system and what happened was the three branches of government in those countries just became gridlocked, nothing could be accomplished, and eventually the president would just effectively declare himself the only ruler. And he would rule by diktat. And these countries were very unstable.

Now, it’s not really clear whether we should blame separations of powers, or these countries had other problems. But most political scientists, I believe, think that parliamentary systems are a lot more sensible. It’s a system that gives the government a great deal of power, but maybe not too much...

[FDR] vastly expanded the power of the federal bureaucracy. And he got Congress to pass laws which were what lawyers call “delegations of power.” Basically, rather than passing a law that says you have to do this or that to ordinary people, the laws say to the President, “you figure out what people should do.”

So, to use an anachronistic example, but an easy one to understand: when environmental law was eventually enacted in the 1970s, Congress didn’t really say, you know, “Here are all the pollutants and this is what you should do about them.” Congress said to the executive branch, “Do something about air pollution. And do something about water pollution.” And the Supreme Court initially struck down these laws, but eventually acquiesced to them. And then it was up to the bureaucracy and the executive branch, ultimately the EPA, to figure out what the rules were.

And then, the final thing of course, is World War II, and of course, you know, for all intents and purposes, during the war, Roosevelt was a dictator who basically decided how things would go, both in terms of how the war was prosecuted and in terms of domestic policy...

Obama is not remotely anomalous in his use of executive orders. George W. Bush, for example, issued 291 executive orders. Bill Clinton? Three hundred and sixty-four. President Obama, with a few months to go, has signed 249. So by sheer number, that isn’t remarkable.

But, Eric Posner argues, Obama has used his power differently.

POSNER: Well, the most distinctive and interesting innovation by President Obama has been to use a power that people don’t talk about much, sometimes called prosecutorial discretion, sometimes called enforcement power...

DUBNER: So I’m trying to square two conflicting narratives here. One is the Obama and Democratic narrative that a Republican-dominated Congress stymied everything that President Obama and the Democrats wanted to do, with your narrative that President Obama got almost everything he wanted by expanding or kind of maximizing presidential power. So can you put those two narratives together for me?

POSNER: Yes. Well, the Democrats are wrong. Obama has accomplished a huge amount, both by obtaining statutes and through his administrative powers... I think if you compare someone like Obama to Carter, Carter’s never going to be considered a great president maybe because he was too scrupulous about the law and about the Constitution"
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