The U.S. Presidency: Looking Forward

The U.S. Presidency: Looking Forward

The latest episode of Reasonably Speaking brings together a panel of top scholars in U.S. presidency and political science to discuss the future of the U.S. presidency Post–Trump. 

In “The U.S. Presidency: Looking Forward,” ALI President David F. Levi is joined by David M. Kennedy and Terry M. Moe of Stanford University, and Jack Landman Goldsmith and Daphna Renan of Harvard Law School for a timely conversation on the most important office in our government.  

The episode begins with historian and scholar David Kennedy providing an in-depth look at the changes and trends the U.S presidency has undergone during its more than 200-year history. Kennedy cites influences such as the rise in publicity and advances in technology from the emergence of mass circulation newspapers – like those of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer – to today’s unprecedented use of social media platforms and the fragmentation of the mainstream media. 

Kennedy notes, “If you go back to those notes on the Constitutional Convention, among the phrases that you'll encounter repeatedly, whenever people like Wilson and Hamilton advocated for a more robust executive, they were taunted with the notion that they were advocating, if they were successful, they would give birth to what was called the fetus of a monarchy. Now that's just a rhetorical rendition of that fear that Adams is talking about, about power concentrated in any place.” 

Daphna Renan shares her thoughts on the duality of the presidential office, often referred to as “the president's two bodies.” 

Renan explains, “Ever since George Washington embodied the idea of an institution that was still in the making, we've had this deep tension, these competing impulses between a personal or charismatic president on the one hand and a more impersonal and deliberative presidency on the other.”

Renan suggests that President Trump’s behavior in office both reflects and challenges our understanding of this duality. “At one level, I think Trump has tried to disrupt a long-standing precept when it comes to the duality that some conceptual and constitutional space for the person's moral and policy leadership not collapse into the use of power for purely private gain...In Trump's insistence over and over again in his actions and his rhetoric that this is a distinction without a difference, flies in the face of constitutional and political development over the centuries. At the same time, the Trump presidency brings into view some problematic developments of the duality if this continues to be a constitutional goal...The result is a potentially potent mix of personal control and personal impunity when it comes to presidential power and I think that's a legal possibility that we've seen, in some ways, realized in the actions of the sitting president, and in some ways, a court starting to cabin this problem in its recent decisions.” 

Terry Moe provides insight on the specific ways in which he believes President Trump’s unusual and often problematic behavior in office actually highlights larger issues within our democratic system. “I think that there's no doubt that Trump's personality, which is bizarre in many different ways, influences his behavior and has helped to explain some of the threat he poses to American democracy. But I also think it's important, in general, not to over-personalize politics and not to over-personalize the presidency. It's the natural thing to do. There's only one president. There's this one person and it's natural to think that this person's unique characteristics are going to have a big effect on what that person does as president. But that's often a mistake and it completely misses the bigger picture of what's going on. In particular, it misunderstands why we face a crisis of democracy in this country. To see that, let's consider how Trump became president in the first place. His rise to power was propelled by white backlash to diversity but also by disruptive socioeconomic forces, globalization, technological change, immigration that brought economic harm and cultural anxiety to tens of millions of Americans. These are serious problems that our government has for decades been entirely ineffective at dealing with.” 

Moe argues that the solution to these issues lies with having a government that can do a more effective job of meeting the needs and concerns of its people, and that the presidency is a key element in championing these reforms. Moe explains, “This crisis isn't, first and foremost, about Donald Trump; it's about populism and about populism’s threat to democracy.” 

Levi steers the conversation towards technology’s, specifically the internet’s, influence on the presidency. Jack Goldsmith suggests that the internet has created a space for divisiveness among political groups that did not previously exist.  Goldsmith describes technology’s reach and influence as such, “It allows the population to separate itself into like-minded bubbles...I mean there's so much disagreement among different groups on what even reality looks like. That of course it also exacerbates or it allows for churning this idea of the evilness of the other. It lets in or fosters or enhances all of the worst aspects of human nature. You talked about anonymous comments that allows people with no voice to think that they're participating and a lot of them do so in ways that are very destructive. It allows for injurious speech because people can gang up on others in ways that we used to not be able to do.” 

The participants’ final thoughts are colored by both optimistic and pessimistic leanings as they comment on possible areas for reform, what the office of U.S. President could look like going forward, and whether it will recover from the damage caused by perhaps the most controversial president in U.S. history.  

David Levi concludes, “...I'm an optimist. I think that's maybe more based on my own personality than anything else... I just don't think Americans want to see this democracy destroyed. Whatever it takes to preserve it and protect it and make it better, I think that's what the American people want.” 

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