The Founding Fathers were not always in agreement. When considering the executive branch, for instance, they debated whether to address their leader as his highness, his excellency or just Mr. President.
“They literally don’t even know what to call the president at the beginning, and I think that’s a good sign that they were just making it up as they went along,” said Adam Rothman, a history professor at Georgetown University. “And they’re the people who wrote the damn thing, so what are we supposed to do?”
Centuries later, the job title is settled. But President Donald Trump isn’t the first to put his own unique stamp on the role, which has continued to evolve and expand as each commander in chief faces new, modern obstacles.
“The executive branch the founders created, there’s little relationship to the executive branch today, which is what you would expect given the types of historical changes that have happened,” said Herbert Sloan, professor emeritus in history at Barnard College.
One reason the job is evolving is there's a lot of wiggle room in its description. Under the provisions of Article II of the Constitution -- which details the framers’ vision for the executive -- the president’s “powers are pretty sketchy, and pretty vague,” Rothman said.
Since Abraham Lincoln, politicians and their constituents have looked to our original revolutionaries for inspiration and guidance. Some go so far as to interpret the Constitution literally, with no room for modernization.
For example, John O. McGinnis, a professor of constitutional law at Northwestern University, believes that “the Constitution was intended to be law” and has “a fixed meaning.” Critics have claimed that Trump’s administration does not respect staples like the First Amendment, but McGinnis does not think that the president’s actions in office have been unconstitutional.
But questioning Trump’s policies through a debate of constitutionality could prove unwise, experts said, as allusions to the founders might be misleading, and judging the administration’s ethics based on an anachronistic document may not be the most effective approach.
The authors of the Constitution could never have anticipated modern demands on the presidency. The job has changed since the founders convened at Independence Hall, and the West Wing has garnered a lot more sway as a consequence.
Andrew Jackson was the first to meaningfully employ the veto, which he used 12 times. Under Lincoln, the executive branch took on more responsibility in order to salvage the Union.
Theodore Roosevelt was the first American president to snag the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to end the Russo-Japanese War, and his interference in conflicts abroad was perceived as an expansion of the president’s jurisdiction.
Today, the executive branch gets a great deal of its influence through foreign policy, and especially through military intervention.
Since World War II, because of modern warfare, there hasn’t been time for the president to report to Congress before taking action, so the legislative branch has delegated more authority to the executive.
The United States’ “arsenal for democracy," as Franklin D. Roosevelt put it, has complicated the presidency even further. Wherever Trump goes, he is followed by an aide in charge of the "football" -- a case that gives him the ability to deploy nuclear weapons. At a moment’s notice, he may have to choose whether to use them.
“We’ve essentially been living with that reality for at least 50 years,” said Ronald J. Granieri, executive director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Center For the Study of America and the West, and director of research at the Lauder Institute.
Because nuclear weapons have blurred the line between war- and peacetime, a lot of U.S. military policy has been kicked to the commander in chief. Congress hasn’t officially declared war since 1942, though since then, the country has sent troops to all corners of the world.
"The president can do an awful lot of things … without having to ask Congress’ permission,” Granieri said. “That is a reality.”
Trump has faced criticism for blurring the line between use and abuse of this power through executive orders and memoranda he’s issued in his first month as president, which some of his opponents perceive as an overreach of his office. Similarly, Barack Obama came under fire for some of his 276 executive orders, including the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans policy, which granted temporary amnesty to undocumented parents of American citizens.
Theodore Roosevelt was the first to extensively use executive orders, issuing 1,081 during his two terms. Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent through 3,721.
Sloan said, “It doesn’t matter how many executive orders there are. It matters what the executive orders are about.”
Rothman believes the Founders “would have been shocked” by presidents employing executive actions to shape policy.
When Congress grinds to a halt over ideological differences, a recent phenomenon in American political history, “the temptation for the president is to look to try to do things” without congressional approval, Granieri said. Executive actions, though temporary and unstable, offer the executive branch a way to circumvent the Capitol.
But, Granieri countered, what makes Trump’s executive orders so out of the ordinary is that unlike Obama, he’s signing them despite having a party majority in both houses of Congress.
Granieri explained that during times of extreme political polarization, voters are more attracted to a seemingly strong president who enacts policy despite the other branches’ perceived inadequacy, and they’re more comfortable with an executive branch that has very few checks and balances.
Citizens are also more willing to circumvent news sources and listen to the president directly. With the advent of social media, politicians have had a direct line to their public through Facebook and Twitter, a resource Trump has used more than past presidents to inform his base.
Though Obama has 84.7 million Twitter followers to Trump's 25.1 million, the former president tended to tweet out press releases. Trump has embraced Twitter to share 140-character opinions on policy and badger or bypass the press, which is supposed to hold him accountable.
Granieri said that this kind of political climate can give rise to demagogues -- one of the Founding Fathers' biggest fears.
But George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson existed in a very different reality. Rothman thinks “we should take the debates of the founders seriously but not literally,” as any interpretation of the framers’ intentions requires “an imaginative leap."
In the end, it doesn’t really matter what they thought, or feared. Just like the legislative and judicial branches, the presidency has changed since 1789. What’s important is shaping ethical policy, according to observers.
“I think there are an awful lot of reasons to be alarmed about what’s going on and to oppose it,” Sloan said. “But the least important reason for opposing Trump’s abuse of executive power is that the founders, the framers of the Constitution, didn’t want this.”