Five years ago, congressional Republicans blasted President Barack Obama as “Emperor Obama” and compared him to a king for his executive actions, most notably those protecting some undocumented immigrants. Ten years ago, conservative activists launched the tea party movement in large part as a call for a more limited federal government.
Today, conservative Republicans have moved sharply toward embracing a more powerful chief executive with fewer checks and balances.
A new Pew Research Center poll, in fact, finds that a majority of conservative Republicans (52 percent) agree that many problems would be solved “if U.S. presidents didn’t have to worry so much about Congress or the courts.” That number has doubled since last year (26 percent) and quadrupled from when Barack Obama was president in 2016 (13 percent).
Today, just 41 percent choose the other option, that it “would be too risky to give U.S. presidents more power” to confront problems.
Among the broader group of all Republicans and Republican-leaning voters, the numbers have also risen substantially in recent years. Just 14 percent favored fewer checks on the president in 2016. That number rose to around one-quarter in Trump’s first year-plus, and today it’s 43 percent of all Republicans.
And it’s not just a matter of partisanship either. It’s normal for a party to favor presidential powers more when it holds the office, but the shift among Republicans is considerably bigger than among Democrats. While the share of Republican-leaning voters favoring a more powerful executive has risen 29 points between 2016 and 2019, the corresponding drop among Democratic-leaning voters who favor that approach has been just 13 points, from 29 percent in Obama’s last year to 16 percent today.
(It’s possible being close to the 2016 election might have reined in support among Democrats for the proposition, given that could mean the more-powerful executive could soon be Trump. But this was still at a time when the vast majority of people — and especially Democrats — expected Hillary Clinton to be the next president.)
It’s difficult to separate this new poll finding from what has transpired over the entirety of the Trump presidency. Trump has sought to stretch his presidential powers to distances not even broached by Obama — including by using a national emergency declaration to build a border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border — and along the way he has run into a series of adverse court decisions. Many of these decisions were momentary and/or came in particularly unfavorable jurisdictions. But the setbacks have also included a number of instances in which the administration simply didn’t make a valid defense of the change, including recently when the Supreme Court’s conservative majority blocked the 2020 Census citizenship question.
When met with such decisions, Trump has often attacked the judges behind them, regularly labeling them “Obama judges” and the like. His comments about judges in 2017 even earned him a rebuke from his then-Supreme Court nominee, Neil M. Gorsuch.
Trump has also been stymied by Congress, even though Republicans controlled it for his first two years. The GOP passed tax cuts but was unable to repeal and replace Obamacare, thanks to defections from its own members, including the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). As with the judges, Trump hasn’t held back in criticizing McCain, even continuing that criticism following McCain’s death.
Against that backdrop, perhaps it’s not surprising that Republicans view Congress and the courts as an impediment to the policy proposals they and Trump want. Obama occasionally decried the broken Congress and even criticized Supreme Court justices in a State of the Union address, but he didn’t ever go as far as Trump has.
A more sinister read, of course, would be that Republicans have warmed to a more autocratic type of leader given Trump’s regular praise and admiration for strongmen around the world. Whatever the case, it’s clear there has been a significant shift — not the kind that suggests the American people would sign off on a dictator, certainly, but one in which one of the two major parties has significantly less regard (or desire) for the checks and balances the Founding Fathers created.