The American presidency was designed to have extraordinary, but limited powers. Over time, the one power that has been shown to have no limits is a president’s ability to get the nation’s attention.

The most consequential presidents have been able to use that power to get things done.

Ronald Reagan never had one day in office where his party had unified control of Congress but was able to pass much of his agenda by appealing directly to the American people. Before Pearl Harbor, Franklin D. Roosevelt used radio addresses to gradually turn public opinion away from isolationism, preparing the country for World War II.

As millions of Americans enjoy a day off for Presidents Day, you can’t avoid the paradox of power as wielded by the current president.

Donald Trump has a knack for getting attention that would have made Roosevelt and Reagan drool with envy. Trump’s 58.3 million followers on Twitter receive messages directly from the president whenever he wants to send one, with no media gatekeeper getting in the way.

For two months he has dominated the agenda, forcing a debate over an alleged need for a great wall, or at least a “very powerful fence,” along our southwest border. Trump shut down parts of the federal government for more than a month to get his wall, he made a nationally televised address from the Oval Office, devoted much of his State of the Union speech to it and has conducted a campaign-style rally on the border to marshal public opinion. He has invented statistics and relayed vivid stories of atrocities committed by foreign enemies, sending his staffers scurrying to see if they could find an example of the things the president had assured the world had been happening.

But none of that has drawn a majority of the country behind the president. So on Friday, he announced that he had declared a national emergency and would move money appropriated for other purposes to build his wall.

The president’s emergency powers have been routinely used and sometimes abused, but this is something novel. The president may be the first to consider his inability to persuade others to be an emergency. It will be interesting to see if the courts agree.

A holiday that remembers past presidents is a good occasion to imagine what it would be like with another person in his position.

What if a president and Congress had spent the last few months focusing on one of the real problems that the country is facing? What if they had been hammering out a climate change bill, or a response to the overdose epidemic, or lowering the high cost of prescription drugs? Imagine if the president were shining a bright light on political corruption and the ways that the system is rigged to benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else.

Presidents Day 2019 is a time where we can celebrate the limits on presidential power. But our failure to make any serious progress on our real problems is nothing to cheer about.


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