Both the fear of Donald J. Trump; and much of the success of his campaign – come from a profound misunderstanding of the American presidency. Trump’s supporters; and many of those who fear him, greatly overestimate the amount of power an American president actually has.
Such fears are widespread in Europe because many Europeans, especially Britons, confuse the presidency with the office of prime minister. The President’s power is far less than that of a prime minister, because he or she is not part of a legislative body.
The British Prime Minister is in a position to write the budget and to introduce legislation to parliament. Since the Prime Minister’s party; or coalition, also controls parliament there is a good chance that his or her legislation will pass. Under a parliamentary system all budgetary and executive decisions are made by the prime minister.
What the President cannot do
Under the American system the president is completely separate from Congress. The president cannot introduce legislation; all he or she can do is to suggest legislation to Congress, and hope that somebody introduces it and the bill passes.
This means President Trump would not be able to institute policies; like building a wall on the Mexican border or restricting trade when he takes office. He will have to wait for Congress to act and there is not guarantee that it will act.
The President’s role in budgetary matters is even more limited because the U.S. Constitution gives the power to write the budget to the lower house of Congress; the House of Representatives. All the president can do is send the Representatives a model budget and hope that they pass it.
The president has the power to veto or refuse to sign legislation, but that is of little help on the budget. The Representatives can easily get around the veto by writing a very long budget that contains a wide variety of items.
For example they can write a budget that contains both pay for the Army; and funding for a scientific research program that the President opposes. The President will have to sign that budget in order to make sure that the troops get paid. That means President Trump will have to go along with a wide variety of funding and policies he opposes.
Why the President Does not Set Policy in America
That means the president has very little control over policy in the United States. Almost all policy on matters like education, taxes, social programs, transportation, regulation of business, the environment, agriculture and scientific research in the United States in the hands of Congress – particularly the House.
The only policy the President has a great deal of control over is foreign policy; because Congress has little interest in foreign affairs. The president generally controls negotiations with foreign countries and sets the policy on matters like trade.
Despite that treaties and international agreements need the ratification of the U.S. Senate (upper house) to become law. If the Senators vote against the treaty, it becomes nothing but a piece of paper.
Therefore the Senate has the ability to reject or completely change the President’s foreign policy. This actually happened after World War I; when the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations, and effectively killed Woodrow Wilson’s foreign policy.
What the President Can Actually Do
The president has a few powers but even those are limited and confusing. A president can order military action, but he or she cannot declare war.
President Trump would be in a position to order the military to attack another country but a legal state of war would not exist. More importantly, he would not be able to engage in a prolonged military action without Congress’s support.
Congress is in a strong position to end military action by simply cutting off the funds. President Ford was forced to end operations in Vietnam, because Congress shut off the money for the war.
The President also authorizes a wide variety of other activities including covert operations. Yet he would still need Congress’s support for those because it provides the money.
An Important Presidential Power
The president does have one very important power that partially explains Trump’s victory. The Constitution gives the President the power to appoint federal judges; including the Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Since the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution, it determines what rights Americans have and how the courts function. This helped Trump because the Supreme Court will soon have to rule on the constitutionality of gun control laws in the United States.
Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton, is a strong supporter of gun control; who believes that the Constitution does not grant Americans a right to own or use guns. Trump; whose position on gun control is hazy, has stated that the Second Amendment to the Constitution grants Americans the rights to own guns and use them in self-defense.
Many gun owners in the United States were afraid that Clinton would appoint Supreme Court justices that shared her views. Those people voted for Trump because he might appoint justices that believe there is such a right.
How the Supreme Court Explains the Trump Victory
Such fears are heightened because the next President will have to appoint a replacement for the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia wrote the Heller decision, an important ruling that said Americans have the right to own guns; and banned state and local governments from banning handguns.
Gun ownership is important in rural America, which Trump won, because many people there consider firearms an important part of their culture. They view any attempt at gun control as an assault on their traditional values and way of life.
The entire election might have turned on this one limited power of the President. Scalia’s seat is still unfilled nearly a year after his death, because Republicans in the Senate; which ratifies judicial appointment, refused to vote on the matter. They wanted to make sure a Republican appointed his replacement.
Now President Trump is in a position to appoint Scalia’s replacement. The Senate; which Republicans control, is likely to approve whoever Trump appoints. Trump is likely to appoint two or three more Supreme Court Justices because the average age of the current court’s members is 69.
Therefore the election may have really been about the U.S. Supreme Court and not the President’s powers. Many Americans voted for Trump on that issue alone.
President Trump will not change the world or America. He simply lacks the power to do much beyond appoint a few justices and send out Tweets. Therefore there is no reason to be afraid of Trump, or believe that he will Make America Great Again.