Not that long ago, President Eisenhower presided over the construction of the interstate highway system and the formation of suburbia as we know it. Lyndon Johnson created social security, medicare, and medicaid as we know it. Nixon took the dollar off of the gold standard, making it the currency we know today and opened trade with China. A little further back, Woodrow Wilson gave women the vote. Modern political discourse is just discussing incidental details of the state of affairs put together before Watergate forced Nixon to resign in 1974.
The magnitude of decisive policy changes these previous leaders regularly participated in dwarfs anything that has been possible for decades.
As we bicker for years over the trivial funds needed for a border wall, keeping roads repaired, keeping consumerism chugging by keeping interest rates eternally low, or cooking up convoluted subsidies to health insurers as the next social safety net, we are but children playing among the ruins built by giants who came before us.
Since the last powerful presidents, power has become increasingly informal and has been diffused across the vassal states we often call the “international community” through state and non-state entities.
A warning sign of the trend of de-formalization was declarations of war becoming obsolete since World War 2. It is now taken for granted that a basic diplomatic procedure even Empires observed is simply ignored as less obvious forces guide the direction of hostilities towards causes and places that neither pose a direct threat to the state nor offer prospects of profitable(to the nation) conquest.
Bill Clinton squeezed off some decent-sized legislation. George W. Bush got a little bit more through before he was completely a lame duck, mostly to lower the standards of the already-crippled education system. The creation of Homeland Security might have been the last long-term significant legislation ever supported by a US president.
Barack Obama heralded the post-formal age of US politics. He forced through one last piece of pork barrel for health insurance companies as arterial plaque sealed up the last wiggle room. Even that very modest action cost him dearly in political capital and cost his party hundreds of seats. He never recovered.
Obama resorted to the executive powers of his office to get anything done. The formal power that remained was exercised ever more through appointed officials and bureaucrats while circumventing elected assemblies as much as possible.
Trump is a far-diminished version of Obama when it comes to the exercise of power. Obama had a friendly bureaucracy and his “thousand statesmen” who worshiped him. Trump is despised by these same unelected officials and they do everything they can to impede even the exclusive powers of the executive. Collaboration with elected officials is almost out of the question.
Trump has spent the last two years making appointments and promotions that will allow him to become capable of things Obama could do on a whim during breakfast. Obama could have had some soldiers build a border wall with no trouble.
The trouble with the extreme constriction of power is it either becomes formally ceremonial at some point, meaning people look somewhere else for the real power.
Or else, like a faucet plugged by a thumb, it goes spraying everywhere out of control as that pent-up pressure surges through. Trump is on the verge of assembling his first batch of loyal statesmen, perhaps ten or twenty instead of a thousand, but it will enable him immensely to further erode the opposition that faces him from un-elected and non-state sources in the very limited time he has left. Blog.jim is fond of pointing out that Trump must understand he, his kids, and grandkids will not be simply left alone if he leaves his position of power with the present elite intact. Now that is a powerful incentive. If power must turn inward on itself, perhaps at some point, the elected assemblies simply get left out.