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Imad K. Harb

Trump's tug-of-war with America's political establishment

Presdient Trump at a reception with Congressional leaders, 23 January 2017 [AFP]

Date of publication: 10 February, 2017

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Comment: Many presidents have succeeded in increasing their power vis-a-vis Congress, but they knew where and when to draw the line on executive authority, writes Imad K. Harb.

President Donald Trump's executive orders are ready-made mechanisms that his administration believes will help it to institutionalise his campaign promises. These orders encompass many controversial policy prescriptions that rub against political and constitutional sensitivities.

While current debate in the American capital centres around the constitutionality of the president's executive orders and a popular movement rages against them, what seems to be afoot is a presidential grab of more power at the expense of the other political leg of the American political system; i.e., Congress.

To be sure, the stakes have never been higher in American politics on such topics as presidential power and prerogatives, congressional effectiveness, and the general public's input into the political process and its impact on the future of American democracy.

While the president's electoral victory was procedurally constitutional - he won the majority in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote by close to 3 million ballots - it was not an overwhelming mandate giving him reason and legitimacy to steer the country completely off the trodden path of gradual, considered, and arguably agreeable change.

His actions have been none other than the realisation of ideological platitudes grounded in populist language that lacks nuance and sensitivity to complex policy formulation and implementation.

His actions have been none other than the realisation of ideological platitudes grounded in populist language

In fact, President Trump promised during the campaign to promulgate policies through executive orders that he thinks will get the job done and eliminate layers of bureaucracy and deliberations to which Washington is used, and through which special interests are expressed and served.

But it is precisely this modus operandi that is making many in Congress nervous, not only among Democrats naturally, but also among Republicans who are expected because of party loyalty to accept whatever he proposes, albeit after discussion.

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In addition to differences on policy, Democrats see him as the embodiment of opposition to everything his predecessor, Barack Obama, stood for and believed in, and a threat to the social democratic tradition of the Democratic Party.

The ongoing battles over the executive orders and the confirmation hearings for members of Trump's cabinet indicate that the party believes it must wage a vigorous fight against his policies and behavior or soon find itself unable to defend any turf in Washington. The party also feels that if it does not act it might find itself falling behind the popular response to his policies, the latest of which are the demonstrations against his Muslim ban.

Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are deeply concerned from an institutional perspective about developments in the American capital

Republicans, on the other hand, are apprehensive not about policies - since they have longed to do much of what the president is doing - but about the fact that Trump has both hijacked their party since the primary season and sidelined the Republican Party establishment in deciding what policies get priority over others.

His erratic policy proposals and pronouncements have taken the party by surprise and have upended the traditional makeup of American politics that it cherishes. Trump's success in garnering the support of a core constituency at the heart of conservatism - buttressed by elements of racism, religious fanaticism, xenophobia, and conspiracy-mongering - has cowed Republican politicians into accepting extreme proposals lest they be voted out of office.

Moreover, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress are deeply concerned from an institutional perspective about developments in the American capital, despite the Republican's general support of the president.

Politicians of both stripes are what may be called institutionalists: members of arguably the most deliberative bodies in the democracies of the world. They are also representatives of political and economic elites, whose sole concern is stability that serves their interests.

It is hard to see how a strident Trump can be reined in by a weakened Congress

Whether members of Congress approve of Trump's policies is obviously governed by their political and ideological stripes; but they still care deeply about how these policies - and the way they have been promulgated - effect the position occupied by their august body with its two chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Only the future will tell what becomes of the constitutional principle of separation of powers in the United States which, for all intents and purposes, has made political stability possible in the American political system. It is true that many presidents have tried to increase their power vis-a-vis Congress, and have indeed succeeded, but they had the persuasive arguments and popular legitimacy necessary for such a constitutional fight.

They, however, knew where and when to draw the line on executive authority and presidential prerogatives. In the current political atmosphere of a presidency made possible by the appeal to populist sentiments that eventually took over the traditional Republican political establishment and defeated the Democratic Party, it is hard to see how a strident Trump can be reined in by a weakened Congress.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab

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