How to fix the presidency

How to fix the presidency

Presidents have become more powerful. They also are more prone to failure. 

We are about to pick our next president, and many voters aren’t inspired by the likely choices. 

But experts on the presidency tell us that our problems with the institution go beyond both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.

Presidents have become more powerful. They also are more prone to failure. 

Since at least the Great Depression and World War II, the federal government (and, thus, the executive branch) has grown. Those considerable powers allow presidents to increasingly act unilaterally – from Trump’s declaring an emergency to build a border wall, to Biden unilaterally forgiving more than $400 billion in student debt. When presidents go beyond the plain language of the Constitution, they blame the electorate. They claim that "We the People" elected them, thus granting them a democratic mandate that justifies greater authority.

Presidents have also become more likely to fail. From the Iraq War to the Great Recession to the failed healthcare website, to the fumbled response to COVID to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, presidents appear to have mismanaged signature issues of our time. That, in turn, causes them to fail politically and to lose public trust.

We need a presidency that is more responsible and more effective. How do we achieve these twin goals?

Even worse, each political party claims that presidents from the other party breach the Constitution and break the laws they were elected to uphold. 

We need a presidency that is more responsible and more effective. How do we achieve these twin goals?

Diagnosing the problem

Growing presidential power can lead to failure for at least three reasons. 

First, the current presidential selection process favors each party’s base. Candidates make extreme campaign promises to fulfill their most avid supporters’ demands. Once they win, they struggle to sustain wider public support for policy initiatives. 

Second, Congress is no longer either a partner or a check on presidential power. Congress has yielded power to the executive, acquiescing in the exercise of emergency powers, executive action, signing statements, and discretion in foreign affairs. 

Third, presidents don’t police themselves. Presidents often use the government for political ends—principally, getting reelected. They prioritize communicating over managing. They sometimes fill the executive branch with officials who will over-use discretion when enacting laws. At times, presidents even skirt or break the law.

One result is that partisans tend to trust the federal government only when it is run by their own party and distrust it when their party is out of power. 

Exploring solutions

Three types of reforms have the potential to resolve the paradox of a more powerful presidency that is prone to failure. Each has a different time horizon.

First, election reform can help elect presidents more interested in bipartisan solutions.

Partisans tend to trust the federal government only when it is run by their own party and distrust it when their party is out of power. 

Reforms could include wider use of open primaries, changing the way or sequence of how convention delegates are chosen, a national primary, or even mandatory voting. Such changes could boost independent voter turnout and moderate the extreme ambitions of a party’s base. 

How and when could these changes take root? The most likely scenario is that the defeated party in the 2024 election may be willing to consider sweeping reforms for the 2028 elections.

Second, addressing congressional dysfunction could help restore balance between the branches. 

Congress could streamline its own decision-making to be a more effective partner by moving toward fast-track authority (used largely on budget reconciliation and trade policy) on a wider range of issues. Congress could also unclog the appointment process by pre-clearing more presidential staff or cutting the number of confirmed positions. These reforms would not only allow presidents to set the legislative agenda, they would also mean presidents would be less likely to pursue unilateral executive action. 

Congress could limit or provide oversight of the presidency’s wide interpretative discretion. It could reduce the president’s extraordinary crisis powers by sunsetting or clearly defining the chief executive’s emergency and war powers. 

Alternatively, Congress could focus on its own voice—publishing lists of constitutional violations by the executive or using censure to discredit a president’s most extreme offenses. 

How and when would these reforms happen? It is possible that if one party wins the presidency and both houses of Congress in 2024, it might be willing to rethink how our branches work together, similar to the post-Watergate reforms of the Ford and Carter Administrations.

Finally, we could try to revise the laws and norms that govern the presidency itself. 

Observers disagree on how to patrol the executive branch, especially if Congress is not serving this function. Some opponents of federal power argue that the Supreme Court should limit executive-branch rulemaking. Others find the problem in career executive branch officials and seek to give the president more authority over an unchecked and unaccountable “deep state.” 

Reforms seem particularly relevant in guarding the Department of Justice from executive branch partisanship. Federal law enforcement officials must be able to prosecute cases of genuine wrongdoing—including against former, sitting, or future presidents—but must not be permitted to stifle legitimate political opposition.

Potential reforms include making explicit the rules governing special counsels, including how and when they are chosen and Congress’s right to be informed about their investigations. Policies addressing presidential criminal liability—both while in office and after holding office—must be revisited, including re-examining the use of the pardon power to obstruct justice. 

How and when would this happen? It might be that both parties in Congress—fearing that the other party might win the presidency in 2024—are willing to pursue some set of reforms prior to the election in 2024.  

For good or ill, the presidency is the focal point of our democratic republic. The American people have both high hopes and low expectations for the institution. Those who care about the fate of our nation must continue examining pathways toward a more responsible and effective presidency. Otherwise, we may continue to elect presidents that half the country wants but the other rejects as illegitimate.

Olivia Abbey, a fourth-year UVA student and a Miller Center Anselmi Intern, contributed research for this article.