Opinion | Biden and Trump Share One Thing

The administrative state — that tangle of agencies that compose the executive branch, some formally independent and others more answerable to the White House — remains a formidable force in this era. But its growth has not always strengthened our presidents. This is most obvious in Republican administrations, as the chief executive strains to wrangle career officials and independent regulators who often want to steer a course different from his. But those same agencies operate in Democratic administrations, and even if the course they steer better suits a left-leaning president, their autonomous strength can render him institutionally weaker.

The same might be said of presidential appointees. One measure of a president’s administrative prowess is whether his midlevel political appointees can readily imagine what the president would do if he were in their jobs and act accordingly. This has been fairly easy to do under most modern presidents. But under both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump, many appointees could be forgiven for having no idea how the president would want them to make key decisions — Mr. Trump because he was so unpredictable, and Mr. Biden because he so rarely has set clear goals.

These distinct but related forms of presidential weakness gesture toward two key elements of the job. Alexander Hamilton argued that a strong chief executive exhibits energetic decision-making and “steady administration.” Both elements are necessary, and the absence of either, Hamilton suggested, “implies a feeble execution of the government.”

Those of us who would like to see Congress reassert itself might hope for a silver lining in such presidential feebleness. But the evidence of recent Congresses suggests those hopes are misguided. The past couple of years have seen the passage of some meaningful bipartisan measures — on public health, infrastructure, gun control, manufacturing and more. But they have often revealed the contemporary Congress’s own weaknesses — the gangs of senators have often worked around rather than through the committee system and regular order — more than they have remedied them.

This should not surprise us. The president and Congress don’t have the same job, and the weakness of one does not make the other stronger. On the contrary, it often distorts the work of the other and invites more weakness in return.

When that happens, partisanship rushes in to fill the void and soon makes for a vicious cycle: Congress and the presidency increasingly incline to the same sort of work — neither legislative nor executive but more like partisan performance art — and both grow more forgetful of their core responsibilities.

This is a particular problem for our presidents because, unlike Congress’s job, the president’s role is defined by obligations he must meet. As the political scientists Joseph Bessette and Gary Schmitt have argued, the presidency is better understood as a collection of duties than an arrangement of powers, and presidential strength is often a function of living up to those responsibilities.

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