Official White House photo (2012).

An Analysis of Presidential Accretive Power – Part 2

The intersection between populism and progressivism is often contentious and reserved. At least, that is how it has been for the last century or so. To quote Robert Kennedy, “Democracy is messy, and it’s hard. It’s never easy.” Following the analysis on the founding and history of presidential power, this article covers the transition from the outgoing populist to the more progressive incoming president.

In the past, the executive orders of any administration describe how power was used in quite different ways. However, recent demonstrations show how social media can also be used to influence millions of citizens and, when used as a disinformation weapon, endanger the concept of democracy as it is commonly known. What happens next will challenge the republic, change views about the use of social media, create new regulations and laws, and influence presidential power for years to come.

The transition between the Obama and Trump administrations was a fistic situation. However, it was peaceful in comparison to the transition from Trump to Biden. Often, the incoming president cancels as many executive orders of the previous administration as possible and issues new executive orders based on the incoming administration’s philosophy and electoral promises made during the campaign. Trump issued 14 presidential directives on his first day in office and Biden is expected to issue 15-20 presidential directives on 20 January 2021. This is one of the first and very visible illustrations of presidential power that happens in any given administration.

As Biden said while running for office, “This campaign is about reaching the soul of America.” The comment sounds familiar and is expected. However, no one could foresee what would happen next.

The power of a president both real and perceived, has been building slowly since the founding of the nation. However, there have been lurches in U.S. history causing a sudden expansion. In fact, one of those sudden lurches may be occurring now. That lurch is the expanding use of social media in everyday life and the role it may have played influencing Trump’s followers to riot and attack the United States Capitol Building, the nation’s bastion of democracy.

  • The nation has experienced these power lurches before. For example:
  • The election of Abraham Lincoln was the tipping point on the issue of slavery that led 11 states to break away and initiate the Civil War.
  • The rise of fascism in the 20th century eventually led to two world wars and the U.S. becoming a superpower.
  • The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt four times led to the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution on 27 February 1951. This Amendment limits the president to two terms in office.
  • Issues such as civil rights, the Vietnam war, Watergate, terrorism, advanced technology, and most recently COVID-19 (just to name a few) have affected the real or influential power of a president.

History has now led to the transition of power by the outgoing Donald J. Trump and the incoming Joseph R. Biden and the continued search for the answer to the question, “Is the U.S. president really the most powerful person in the world?”

President Donald J. Trump – Power Examples

A quick look at President Donald J. Trump’s term as president would show hundreds of orders, directives, and decisions that affect most U.S. citizens. Here are six selected examples:

  • Numerous disaster proclamations for hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires in the United States.
  • Stafford Act declaration for COVID-19, which was the first ever for a nationwide event. Generally, the governor of an affected state/territory or tribal chief executive of an affected Indian tribal government requests the president to approve a Stafford Act declaration and the president makes the determination in consultation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This was a rare situation and has only happened a few times before, such as for the federal courthouse explosion in Oklahoma City and the loss of the Space Shuttle Columbia. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) remains the lead agency for the federal response to COVID-19.
  • The Defense Production Act of 1950, which was passed at the start of the Korean War and authorizes the president to force businesses to manufacture materials or products deemed necessary for the safety of the nation was also triggered by COVID-19. The pandemic resulted in nationwide unemployment from the shutdown of businesses. Congress passed the CARES Act for citizen relief and Trump backed that up by using FEMA disaster relief funds to finance extra jobless benefits by $300 a week.
  • Immigration basically stopped due to COVID-19 and the building of 450 miles of additional border wall between Mexico and the United States. Travel restrictions and bans were implemented for non-U.S. citizens arriving from China, Iran, and Europe. The Trump administration also effectively ended asylum at U.S. land borders by using the power given to the surgeon general to control a public health risk. (A Supreme Court ruling allowed the nationwide enforcement of the Trump administration rule that prevents most Central American migrants from seeking asylum in the United States.)
  • Space Policy Directive (SPD) 6 National Strategy for Space Nuclear Power and Propulsion (SNPP). This directive sets out three principles for the future development of space nuclear systems – safety, security, and sustainability.
  • Executive Order (13943) Addressing the Threat Posed by WeChat and TikTok. This action addressed the spread in the United States of mobile applications by companies in China, which the Trump administration believed to be a threat to national security. (This executive order was blocked by a federal judge in California.)

President Joseph R. Biden – Proposed Change

Without a past to dissect, it is difficult to know with certainty where a new president will guide the nation in the future. However, with Biden’s 45-year experience in the federal government as a senator and vice president, it could be argued that he is a highly qualified candidate for president. Biden, like all presidents, will feel the immediate “burden of the office of president.” His priorities will be questioned, debated, and often blocked by friends as well as the opposition. Biden begins his journey facing tough issues that he himself campaigned for or against. This is the challenge of leadership and politics. Here are some difficult issues he will face:

  • Getting his team on the ground and functioning quickly is a priority. He can use special authorities to get around problems. However, there are more than 4,000 positions to fill and about 1,250 of those require Senate confirmation.
  • The COVID-19 response solution requires every citizen to cooperate by wearing masks and getting vaccinated. Biden also knows he cannot mandate that everyone wear a mask or get a shot. This is because the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 in Independent Businesses v. Sebelius (which concerned the Obamacare mandate) that an individual must be involved in commercial activity for the Congress to regulate them under the commerce clause. Biden has changed his position to be “wearing a mask is a patriotic duty.”
  • The SolarWinds cybersecurity breach forces the Biden administration to address Russian cybersecurity threats, which affected over 18,000 organizations.
  • Biden will move quickly on the DACA program to protect dreamers and to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord.
  • Biden has vowed to expand the Affordable Care Act even as the Supreme Court is hearing a case that could gut it. Biden made this issue a central part of his campaign.
  • Biden will be forced to reckon with social media’s impact on politics.

The Administrative State

To fully understand the impact of presidential power, every governmental leader (and citizen) should develop a working knowledge of the administrative state. This is an element of governance that touches any citizen when least expected and leaves a “How can they do that?” epiphany. Every day, news reports and images illustrate the impact the administrative state can have.

It is important to decide how the country interacts with other nations, defends itself, and builds an image as a democracy. However, there has always been a need for experts who did the work of handling the nation’s daily business – from the postal service in the beginning all the way to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or FEMA today. These agencies do not make any laws, but they do make the rules they use to manage their agencies and expeditiously deliver their services. The current phrase “follow the science” implies the need to follow the experts in dealing with COVID-19.

There are recognized guides for how the administrative state should function. The guides warn against the following actions because they represent a lack of morality of duty.

  • A failure to make rules
  • A failure of transparency
  • An abuse of retroactivity
  • A failure to make rules understandable
  • Issuance of rules that contradict each other
  • Rules that require people to do things they lack the power to do
  • Frequent changes in rules, so that people cannot orient their actions in accordance with the rules
  • A mismatch between rules as announced and rules administered

The “administrative state” has been lauded and condemned but is a vital part of the nation’s governing system. Deferring to experts is routinely used in the court system and is a major part of presidential power.

This article is Part 2 of a three-part series on “An Analysis of Presidential Accretive Power”:
Part 1 – Introduction to Presidential Accretive Power
Part 2 – The Trump and Biden Transition and the Impact on the Administrative State
Part 3 – Federalism – How It Works and Limits Presidential Power

Bill Austin
William H. Austin

William H. Austin, DABCHS, CFO, CHS-V, MIFire, currently teaches in the Emergency Management Master’s Degree Program at the University of New Haven in Connecticut (2016-present). He formed a consulting firm, The Austin Group LLC, in 2011. He served as fire chief of West Hartford, CT (1996-2011) and as the fire chief of Tampa, FL (1985-1995). He has a master’s degree in Security Studies (Defense and Homeland Security) from the United States Naval Postgraduate School (2006) and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Troy State University (1993). He is a member of the Preparedness Leadership Council and has served on various governing councils in Florida and Connecticut. Contact at



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