When George Washington was president, he understood the power of being first. His statement that "I walk on untrodden ground" recognized that, in the words of his biographer Joseph Ellis, "everything he did set a precedent." For that reason, Washington was careful with the precedents he set, understanding that his successors would either follow them, or be asked to justify why they were not doing so.
Washington — whose birthday we celebrate this week — understood that the "president" concept was a controversial one. It was hotly debated in the early days of the nation; some argued it wasn't even needed or that power should be divided among three magistrates. Others argued for an elected majesty. In the end, the Founders settled on a chief executive charged with ensuring the execution of the law, known simply, almost prosaically, as "Mr. President."
Following Washington's wise and measured approach, the presidency has repeatedly shown itself able to tie Americans together, lead America through times of crisis, and help to steer America away from authoritarianism on the right and socialism on the left. To continue to achieve these many different ends, the presidency must maintain both its potency in our federal system and its credibility with the people. A weakened presidency can do very little to balance the other two branches, while a presidency without the respect of the American people is destined to fail — or seek extraconstitutional means to achieve its ends. For our government and our nation to succeed, the presidency must maintain its characteristics as a respected American institution.
Unfortunately, the presidency has taken some severe blows to its credibility in recent years, as Washington's careful precedent management has been less in evidence in this 21st century. Donald Trump was a norm-breaking politician in a variety of ways, but he is far from alone among recent presidents in breaking established presidential practices. After historic congressional losses in 2010, Barack Obama declared that he had a "pen and a phone," promoting the use of executive orders and administrative action to accomplish what he could not get passed legislatively, even when he had previously stated it was unconstitutionalto do so. George W. Bush created a homeland-security state after 9/11, and also alienated Democrats with his use of "signing statements" to explain his administration's interpretation of what legislation meant and how the administration would implement bills that had become law. And Joe Biden has already sought to create New Deal– or Great Society–level changes despite far narrower legislative majorities than those enjoyed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson.
As a result of the changes wrought by these very different presidents, the presidency now inhabited by Joe Biden is significantly different from the presidency of George Washington, and even from that of Bill Clinton, who left the office at the beginning of 2001. Although the presidency has evolved continuously since 1792, the pace of change in the early 21st century is astonishing. National emergencies and external crises have fueled much of this change — but so have cultural and political factors. Increased polarization and the suspension of regular congressional processes have led presidents on both sides of the aisle to press existing rules and presidential norms to their limits. The result is a lot of policy and structural change in a short period, including new cabinet departments, new election rules, and significantly increased spending and debt, among other things. For the most part, these changes have occurred with little thought given to what it all means for the functionality and stability of our democratic institutions and processes.
At this point, two decades into the 21st century, it is clear that the recent changes in toto have taken the presidency far beyond the Framers' original vision of the role in our constitutional system. Going forward, Congress, presidential aspirants, and the American people must assess whether these have been helpful changes, and, if not, what can be done to reassert the proper balance of power among the branches of government.
These questions are particularly important to our nation as we face new international and geopolitical challenges. Freedom and democracy are no longer on a confident march around the world. Authoritarian regimes in China and Russia now vie for power and seek to undermine American influence. A system that relies too much on executive power and not enough on elected legislators has a weaker case to make in favor of the democratic way of life.
Over 200 years ago, Washington understood the importance of being exceedingly careful with presidential power. His vision of the presidency created a long-stable institution that we as a nation are right to honor, even as we must debate the state of the institution in this new century.