There’s a lot - a lot - going on right now, much of it extremely serious and seemingly dangerous. So I suppose it’s not right that I’m hung up on this bit from the top of President Donald Trump’s interview Wednesday with CBS News’s Jeff Glor, but nevertheless I am:
GLOR: But you haven’t condemned Putin, specifically. Do you hold him personally responsible?
TRUMP: Well I would, because he’s in charge of the country. Just like I consider myself to be responsible for things that happen in this country. So certainly as the leader of a country you would have to hold him responsible, yes.
Putting aside Russia and Vladimir Putin . no, Donald Trump, you are not in charge of the United States of America. You are not, in fact, “responsible for things that happen in this country.”
Trump is president of the U.S. It’s a powerful job indeed, with serious responsibilities. But the president isn’t in charge of the nation. He’s not even in charge of the federal government; that’s a responsibility he shares with Congress and the courts. Indeed, while there’s no question about the president having the most influence of any single official, collectively Congress has as much or more. It’s no coincidence that Article I over the Constitution is for Congress, while the president must make do with Article II.
The Constitution does say that “The executive Power shall be vested” in the president, but the structure of the document, not to mention over 200 years of practice, reveals that just as the president has a share in legislating, both Congress and the courts have a share in running the executive-branch departments and agencies. Perhaps all of that practice has also served to make presidents far more important than the Article I/Article II contrast implies. But Trump is an excellent example of how that influence can dissipate rapidly when someone occupies the office who doesn’t know how to use it. After all, we’ve been watching an open and, for the moment at least (as I write this; who knows what will be the case when you read it), successful effort by his staff and others to force him to clearly and without qualification say that Putin interfered in the 2016 election, something that for whatever reasons Trump obviously doesn’t believe and didn’t want to say.
But I’m not really talking about Trump in particular here. All presidents are rolled regularly by their parties, by executive-branch bureaucrats, by state governments acting alone or together, by interest groups and by foreign nations. They are defeated by obscure district courts and on up to the Supreme Court; they are frustrated time and again by Congress as a whole and by individual subcommittee chairs or obstinate senators from both parties. Those who are good at presidenting win their share of these battles and more, but even the best of them lose enough that they are perpetually frustrated.
Yes, under the conditions of the modern presidency - all of those who came after Franklin Roosevelt - we expect them to solve all sorts of problems, and we hold them responsible when they don’t. Even if it’s technically not actually within their duties. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s probably for the best that (normal) presidents try hard to find solutions for diseases, school shootings and hurricane damage because we expect them to; that’s the positive effect of Alexander Hamilton’s “energy in the executive.”
It is an awesome office. Trump, like any president, is responsible for his own actions. He’s responsible for taking care that the laws are faithfully executed, and he’s responsible for preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution to the best of his ability.
But we should step back often and remind ourselves that presidents aren’t actually in charge of very much. And certainly not the entire nation.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy.