For decades if not centuries, Americans have expected energy in the Executive. Founder Alexander Hamilton laid out his vision of energy as a “leading character in the definition of good government,” a concept embraced by even his rivals like Thomas Jefferson. Where does current President Joe Biden fit in?
Throughout much of American history there has been an ongoing debate over the proper role of the executive branch, and it’s chief, the President. The debate began before the Constitution was even ratified. Alexander Hamilton, for instance, was a leading proponent of an active executive. In Federalist No. 70, “The Executive Department Further Considered,” he laid out his vision for an energetic branch of the new government. “Energy in the Executive is a leading character in the definition of good government. It is essential to the protection of the community against foreign attacks; it is not less essential to the steady administration of the laws; to the protection of property against those irregular and high-handed combinations which sometimes interrupt the ordinary course of justice; to the security of liberty against the enterprises and assaults of ambition, of faction, and of anarchy.”
Hamilton also considers the possible outcome of a weakened, passive executive. “A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.” From there, he identified what he believed would constitute an active Presidency. “The ingredients which constitute energy in the Executive are, first, unity; secondly, duration; thirdly, an adequate provision for its support; fourthly, competent powers.” To address the concerns of his detractors, who believed an active executive would lead to a dictatorship, Hamilton believed accountability to the people would act as a safeguard. “The ingredients which constitute safety in the republican sense are, first, a due dependence on the people, secondly, a due responsibility.”
To be sure, this debate over energy in the executive has generally been tinged with no shortage of hypocrisy. While Hamilton clearly espoused his views, other Founders such as Thomas Jefferson were much more circumspect. When it was convenient for him, he embraced a brand of republicanism that suggested a much softer approach to executive power than Hamilton. He and his surrogates sharply criticized the centralization of power that had occurred under even George Washington. After Jefferson won the Presidency himself in 1800, he declared it a “revolution,” “as real a revolution in the principles of our government as that of 1776 was in its form.” Much of his platform was based on unwinding what he saw as government overreach, primarily in the management of the financial sector, the growing costs of government, and the public debt. (Sound familiar?)
At the same time, Jefferson might have done more than any other President in history to advance the powers of the office. First, he rejected the Washingtonian notion that cabinet members should be the best and the brightest, independent of their personal political beliefs or party affiliation. Jefferson stocked his cabinet with loyalists and fired half of the government by the end of his first term. According to Boston University Law Review, “By the end of his administration, Jefferson had given two-thirds of executive offices to members of his party. Jefferson became the inventor, though not the most ruthless practitioner, of the spoils system.” This was clearly about power: Jefferson didn’t trust an Adams or a Hamilton, as talented as such men could be, to do his bidding.
Jefferson also took an active role in law enforcement, pardoning 10 people convicted under the unpopular Alien and Sedition Act, and refusing to prosecute any others even though the Supreme Court had ruled the act Constitutional, saying “the Executive, believing the law to be unconstitutional, was bound to remit the execution of it; because that power has been confided to him by the Constitution.” “You seem to think it devolved on the judges to decide on the validity of the sedition law,” he wrote. “But nothing in the Constitution has given them a right to decide for the Executive, more than to the Executive to decide for them. Both magistracies are equally independent in the sphere of action assigned to them.”
Nor was that his only run in with the Constitution. Though he personally felt it was beyond the powers of his office, Jefferson executed the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon, greatly expanding American boundaries. He also launched our first full scale war against the Barbary Pirates. Clearly, Jefferson had no problem wielding executive power when it suited him and he is generally ranked among our top five presidents of all time. As a result, Hamilton’s vision of an active executive independent of ideology was largely confirmed within 20 years of the Founding.
Since then, almost every President has sought to take an active role in affairs, embracing the concepts of energy espoused in Federalist No. 70, especially “unity” in the sense that the President is the executive branch and “competence.” The question before us today: Where does current President Joe Biden fit into this vision of an energetic executive? Put another way, is he the first passive President in decades if not centuries?
The answer like many things these days is confusing if not downright contradictory. If you are judging energy in the executive by the volume of executive orders, Biden is the most energetic holder of the office ever. To date, he has issued 46 executive orders, on everything from the minimum wage to immigration. In fact, he’s issued four this month alone, one on Climate Related Financial Risk, another on the Revocation of Certain Presidential Actions and Technical Amendment, plus Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity and the Establishment of the Climate Change Support Office. By comparison, former President Trump had signed 35 at this point in his presidency, Barack Obama 20.
At the same time, signing a piece of paper doesn’t take much energy. In general, executive orders have become a convenient way to make it appear a President is doing something about an important issue, while in essence doing little except wielding a pen. There are exceptions of course, such as former President Obama and President Trump’s contrasting orders on immigration that had a huge effect on policy and went all the way to the Supreme Court. Early on in his Presidency, however, it is difficult to determine if Biden’s orders will have the same kind of impact.
We can also, of course, consider his legislative proposals. In this regard, if energy is based on spending and scope, once again Biden ranks as the most energetic President in history. The scale of his proposals is, in a word, unprecedented. Whether the topic is coronavirus relief ($1.9 trillion), infrastructure, complete with an expanded definition (over $2 trillion), or his families plan ($1.8 trillion), Biden clearly has big ideas and isn’t afraid to put a whopping price tag on them. Still, it’s early and only the coronavirus relief package has passed both houses of Congress and been signed into law. The fate of the other proposals is unknown; they might go nowhere, they might change American life for generations.
Finally, we can consider Biden’s presence and engagement in domestic and foreign affairs on a day-to-day basis. How actively is he involved with the issues of the day? How frequently does he engage with the press, appear in public, and take questions?
This is where I believe his passivity, or lack of energy if you prefer, is incontrovertible. First, if you look at the major headlines in the mainstream media, Biden is often somewhat non existent. It’s not uncommon to find more reporting on former President Trump than the current occupant of the oval Office. In many ways, the press treats Biden as a passive observer. The political aggregation website, Real Clear Politics, for example, didn’t have a single headline or article directly about Biden above the fold yesterday. There were multiple pieces about the riot at the Capitol on January 6, articles on woke culture and the potential origin of coronavirus, and numerous items on the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, but Biden warrants barely a mention. “Biden’s Catholicism Adds Tension to Debate Over Late-Term Abortion,” a quote from Secretary of State Antony Blinken about confronting racism at home, and an editorial on The New York Post, “Iran Plays Games with Nuke Inspections, Team Biden Rolls Over.”
As I argued last week, this is far from normal. I also think it reveals a deeper issue and a potential fatal flaw in Biden’s Presidency. It has been a truism of American life for generations that whatever the President does is covered by the media, probably too much. From staged appearances, to speeches, to press conferences, to meetings in the Oval Office, if the President is doing something, somewhere, the media is on it. This makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the lack of coverage of Biden is driven by an underlying lack of energy and engagement. Put another way, if he were engaging on these issues, he would be covered.
I understand the media themselves would not likely see it that way, especially when they are busy pumping out propaganda about Biden being the next FDR, claiming he is engaged in the details on every issue to the point of snapping at staffers. Nor am I suggesting a President needs to dominate the news everyday, every cycle, but if you look at the two major “crises” that have defined Biden’s Presidency to date, it’s hard to see how anyone could reasonably describe him as an energetic executive.
First, immigration: Year over year, the traffic over the southern border has increased roughly ten fold, as in ten times as many people crossing into the country illegally. There are more children and family in US custody than ever before. By any definition, this is a major development that has occurred entirely on his watch, and yet Biden hasn’t devoted a speech to it, has barely taken any questions about the issue, hasn’t visited the border, or met personally with officials from South American countries. Instead, when he correctly labelled it a “crisis,” his underlings walked it back on his behalf. Press Secretary Jen Psaki claimed, “No, there is no change in position,” meaning whatever Biden says and does isn’t the actual position of the Administration. Beyond that, he’s placed his Vice President, Kamala Harris in charge, and she has been equally absent on the issue. She has not held a press conference, taken any questions, or headed to the border herself.
Second, the 11 days of renewed fighting between Israel and Hamas: The first major conflict in 7 years and, yet, again there were no speeches or press conferences, merely a handful of statements, some of which were rebuffed without a second thought by Israel. As far as we can tell, Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu twice over the course of fighting that left hundreds dead including women and children. On the first call, he stressed his “firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself against indiscriminate rocket attacks” and on the second he demanded a cease fire. He also spoke to the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, largely credited with negotiating the cease fire, precisely twice. According to the White House website, he spoke to no other world leaders during this period and delivered no other formal remarks. Perhaps even worse, 500 Democratic staffers, as in members of his own party, are urging him to hold Israel accountable, suggesting once again that Biden’s position on an issue might not be his own, or at least there are large numbers of his party that feel comfortable enough to be vocal in their disagreement.
This is, of course, the Biden that many conservatives like myself see almost every time he appears. Unfortunately, to some extent the White House’s website agrees. The Briefing Room is the Administration’s own propaganda service, and even the substance is meager, more of a sparse news feed than a bully pulpit. Biden makes the occasional statement, signs executive orders, and delivers a few remarks. The remarks and the statements tend to be anodyne, boilerplate items, not the sort of things that drive debate or move a country.
For example, on Tuesday, “The Floyd family meeting went incredibly well. We spent a long time together. I spent — I got a chance to spend a lot of time with Gianna and the family. And we just talked about — you know, it’s the one-year anniversary, and those of you who’ve been through personal loss know that although every anniversary is — you’re happy people remember, it also brings everything back immediately like it happened that day. It takes a lot of courage to go through it.” From there, they often descend into contradictions, “And I think they spoke to you. Maybe they didn’t speak to you; they spoke to some of you. I think they were very pleased with the time we spent together. It was mostly personal. We spent a long time — I guess, almost a couple of hours.”
I’ll leave it to you to decide whether statements like that constitute a lack of energy, but I believe the broader point remains: Biden, as in the man personally, what he is doing and what he is managing, is showing many signs that he is on track to the most passive President in decades. He has not shown energy in leadership or engagement, his own administration and party questions his decisions, and competence appears to be lacking. Furthermore, the security Hamilton identified in accountability is clearly undermined by a lack of public appearances. He cannot show “due dependence on the people, secondly, a due responsibility” without appearing before the people.
I’ll admit it’s early on and perhaps too soon to tell, but this combination does not bode well should a real crisis occur, as it surely will. At the same time, we should all hope I am wrong, and Hamilton is as well. We cannot afford to make this statement true: “A feeble Executive implies a feeble execution of the government. A feeble execution is but another phrase for a bad execution; and a government ill executed, whatever it may be in theory, must be, in practice, a bad government.”