Expert: Presidential Powers Have Varied Through The Decades

By: Jan Sidebotham

Topics: Politics

The White House.

HARWICH – At a League of Women Voters of the Cape Cod Area-sponsored lecture about presidential powers Saturday, October 28 at the community center, Dr. Peter Ubertaccio, professor of political science and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Stonehill College, gave a clear and informative picture of how executive powers were designed and how they have changed since the founding fathers created the constitution.

Article 1 of the Constitution is specific and clear in its list of duties for Congress. Article 2 (“The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America”) leaves a lot of room for interpretation and lacks the clarity of Article 1. This lack of clarity, according to Ubertaccio, allows the president “to seize on the ambiguities of the Constitution, to act where the constitution is silent or to act against [the constitution]” if the political or public will demands it.

Throughout history, presidents — and the public — have viewed their powers differently. In the 19th century, presidents had less latitude. In the 20th century, many presidents embraced the opportunity to expand their powers. Theodore Roosevelt’s attitude was that he could do anything unless the Constitution prohibited it, while William Howard Taft believed that executive orders should reflect what is specifically allowed in the Constitution.

Ubertaccio explained that even a framer like Jefferson who was wary of disproportionate presidential power, once given that power, wielded it to enact the Louisiana Purchase. As Ubertaccio quipped, “Things change a lot when a candidate gets into office.” Until Andrew Jackson’s rule, presidents used their veto power only if a bill was unconstitutional. Jackson’s veto of the National Bank was motivated by his own dislike of the bill, not by a concern for the bill’s constitutional integrity.

The League of Women Voters prides itself on its nonpartisanship, but if there were any Trump supporters in the audience, they kept quiet. Several people commented on the woeful state of the country in terms of political division and incivility. Ubertaccio pointed out that, compared to previous decades, the idea of working outside of one’s party is almost unthinkable. Controversial issues are now partisan issues, when it was not so long ago that there was greater flexibility within the parties. For example, Gerald Ford, a Republican president took a pro-choice stance; Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was anti-abortion.

“I hate to sound pessimistic,” Ubertaccio said. “We’ve become addicted – to outrage. And it’s lucrative for people to engage in it. I keep thinking the fever should break, but people don’t seem tired of it.” The country has suffered divisiveness in the past, but Ubertaccio compared “the immediacy of social media” to the efforts before electronic communication of a pamphleteer. The former can do much more damage.

Ubertaccio’s 90-minute presentation allowed many questions in the second half. One member of the audience noted that there probably wasn’t a single person in attendance younger than 30 and lamented youth’s lack of civic engagement. Ubertaccio said he has great affection for young people and reminded the audience that they themselves might not have been as actively involved in politics in their youth as they are now.

“Young people are distracted because they’re young,” he said. When asked how young people could be encouraged to participate more in public affairs, the professor shared his belief that children notice that their parents read or watch the news and will come to be aware of national and international issues. “If you vote, your kids will vote,” he said.

When asked what information resources he recommends, Ubertaccio’s reply was “Excellent, long-form journalism.” He went on to say that he no longer watches television news except for the PBS Newshour (“You know, that show that used to be MacNeil-Lehrer.”) He reads a variety of reputable newspapers and magazines.

While Ubertaccio was pessimistic about Washington’s current dysfunction, he encouraged the audience to take heart from the efficacy of local governments. Of the state leadership, he said, “Adults are in charge, adults are at work. I admire the way they do their job.” He pointed out that Massachusetts has a Republican governor who works with a “deeply entrenched Democratic” legislature. When an audience member expressed concern about journalistic freedom, Ubertaccio said that, until the president actually puts restrictions on the press into place, nothing can be done to prevent the president from threatening the press. In the meantime, he noted, every time someone from the White House administration strikes out at the media, subscription orders for major newspapers spike.

Ubertaccio told the story of Benjamin Franklin being asked if the framers had created a monarchy or a republic. Franklin’s answer was, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Ubertaccio maintained that keeping a republic involves “active, on-going participation — not just consenting to government.” Democracy can be a messy business. The Constitution, like technology, is only a tool. Its worth depends on the competence and integrity of the person making use of it, he said.