Liberty Expose: Beware the Imperial Presidency
In 1973, historian and political advisor Arthur Schlesinger Jr. popularized a new term in the American political lexicon – The Imperial Presidency. The term was the title of his work on presidential history, which was published during the destruction of the Nixon administration, which transcended the line between executive overreach and crime.
The imperial presidency has been dire problem in American politics; the office of the presidency, created to be a chair in the American government, has become an ad hoc legislature itself. Numerous factors, ranging from the diminishing of federalism, to the role of the media, have contributed to the evolution. The presidency has now become a force unrecognizable to the framers of the constitution.
When the presidency was designed, it was done in the spirt of anti-despotism. Every action taken in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 was done so to prevent despotism, with every kind of precautionary lever on power placed within the new government being framed.
Naturally, the power of the executive was allocated special attention. We have forgotten the linguistic origins of the branches; the role of the President is to executive legislation, hints the term “executive.” While not a completely benevolent patriarch, initially, the President existed to carry out the will of congress. Amongst other traits, pure competence is amongst the most valuable virtues in a good executive.
The office of the Presidency was designed to be anti-monarchal; it was meant to avoid unguided foreign interventions and domestic seizures of power. Now, it does just that. For the first held of American history, the Presidency was not nearly as powerful as it is today.
All of this changed around the beginning of the 20th century. Federalism began to ware down as states began surrendering more of their power to the federal government. Coinciding with the increasing power of the federal government came the rise of the bureaucracies, which themselves conduct policy and make law without congress.
As the 20th century progressed, the President became increasingly powerful. With the great depression, FDR began implementing actions on his own, some of which were not tolerated by the Supreme Court, and at times even his own cabinet. He responded to the Court by packing it with loyalists who share FDR’s vision. The media has contributed by focusing on the President more than they should. The media focus has “politicized” the Presidency to the point to here many of the actions taken are done so with campaign agendas in mind. Now, the American executive is beginning to like something like a monarchy.
Close observers of the contemporary Presidency will recall the guiding “pen and phone” of the last two years of the Obama administration. “I have a pen and a phone” former President Obama would state in his defining political sermons; “and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administration actions.”
The legislature, which in theory should be the guiding policy body of the American government, has devolved into a relative state for the President. Often the President would take an executive action of questionable legality and expect congress to react, or specially, to enshrine the executive action in law. Failure to comply with the demands of the President is met with harsh criticism, as shown by former-President Obama and President Trump.
The most recent example is the controversy surrounding the Deferred Action Child Arrival program (DACA), and the subjects of the action, the so-called dreamers. The executive amnesty program began as a reaction the legislature failing to submit to the wishes of the Obama administration. Frustrated that he did not get what he wanted, he produced the executive order in question and demanded congress act. Congress, being the independent branch, it is, has not done so. Now President Trump is in the same predicament. Despite his initial hostility to DACA during his Presidential campaign, his views have since become vague and there are signs of the President moderating his position. Like his predecessor, Trump is demanding that congress act, or face media scorn.
In a world in which political actors were not polluted by ideological partisanship, curtailing executive overreach would be so formidable of a challenge. But we do not live in that world. Too often, observers ignore executive overreach when their guy is at the helm. In 2005, the renown editorial board New York Times wrote an editorial in which the Times condemned the Bush administration for a controversy surrounding the recess appointments of officials.
When the Obama administration made a similar error, the Times editorial board defended the actions of the former President. (The Supreme Court disagreed, as the Court voted the appointments illegal in a unanimous ruling.) There has already been much hypocrisy on the right regarding abuse of power, but as the Trump administration is just growing out of its infancy, there is still much time for the double standard to build.
The thing about power is that it only grows. It is an unstoppable force, and typically it is only reversed unrelenting forces of political will or catastrophe – and many times those do not even work. The United States is heading into a position in which every four years the people get to choose a new despot to reverse the actions of the former despot.
Policy actions become increasingly fragile when the responsibility of action is stripped from the legislature and utilized for the executive. In this effort, executive orders are signed, only to have the policy altered by the new President via his executive action. Then the cycle will repeat itself.