Although the founding fathers, who denounced monarchy, intended for the Congress to be the most powerful institution in government, the executive branch has since taken that title for itself.
Especially in the modern political era – the latter half of the 20th century to now – the authority and power of the presidency in peacetime has been greatly expanded. Whether it be executive orders that act as legislation, signing statements that rework written law or national security directives, the president has many tools to use when wielding executive power.
So who is to blame for this level of power? In large part, the media.
Both the president and the Congress constantly seek public approval as a mandate to govern, and the president has a large advantage in that the media spends an overwhelming amount of time covering them. Twenty-four-hour network news, print journalism, and online media spend a majority of resources and time covering the day to day activities of the president: where they are going, who they are meeting with and what is on the agenda. Meanwhile, if one seeks to discover the day to day activities of Congress, their only option would probably be C-SPAN.
“I’d say the media have long over-emphasized the president in covering national politics and policymaking,” says Professor Robert Entman of GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs. “This allows presidents, especially now Trump, to create distracting spectacles while the bureaucracy and Congress do all kinds of things that violate the public’s interests, values and policy preferences. I’ve long urged journalists to shift resources from covering the president obsessively to covering the bureaucracy and Congressional action.”
This over-coverage creates the perception for the viewer that we are a “presidential nation,” as Robert Glibert of Northeastern University puts it. Gilbert maintains that that understanding “is affecting both popular perceptions and power relationships on the national level.”
When we look at President Obama’s historic executive action on immigration we see that while there was public support for the content of the action, there was additional support for this use of power itself. When asked to judge the appropriateness of the executive action in a December 2014 PRRI poll, a combined 59 percent of Americans said either the action was “about right” (33 percent) or “did not go far enough” (26 percent.) This came after poll respondents were reminded that Obama cited legislative paralysis as a motive for the action.
In addition to over-coverage of the presidency, there is an over-coverage of the election itself. Media coverage of the most recent cycle began in April 2015, while the election was in November 2016. This means that for 19 months the national press obsessed over the election for a single office, while the 435 representatives and 34 senators up for reelection that same year barely saw the light of day. This gives the public the idea that the presidency must be the most important office because it is covered so extensively.
It is understandable that covering the president is the most expeditious way to talk about what the government is up to. And obviously, it is easier to cover one person than it is to talk about each of the 535 members of congress and dozens of bureaucratic agencies and federal courts. But with a wildcard president like Trump—who might not completely understand the nuances of checks and balances—it is incumbent upon journalists to talk about every moving part and be a public window into each aspect of our government, as to not give power where power is not due.