The Imperial Presidency

Why the real scandal in America is the unconstitutional growth of executive power

Part IV of Julian Drury’s American Empire Series

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America’s Constitutional Republic is meant to stand as a government for the people and by the people. When the United States was founded, it was understood that the country would need a set balance of powers between the three branches of government. However, in the past few decades this constitutional balance seems to be growing increasingly one sided. The idea of the “imperial presidency” has become more relevant in our age and is an idea that is very bipartisan.

Debates over presidential powers have stretched back since the presidency was created in 1787-1789. Through Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt (Teddy and Franklin), Nixon, Bush, and Obama many fierce debates have taken place as to the power and use of power by the executive branch of the government. In the modern era, debates over presidential powers have not subsided. In fact, the debate has only heated up year after year.

Recently, the presidency has come under fire for several scandals. The more important of these involves the Justice Department dumping AP contacts for sources of potential leaks. The DOJ has become aggressive in its pursuit of whistle-blowers and internal leaks, despite the fact that the Obama administration has claimed it desires to implement a federal “Press Shield” law.

The importance of this scandal rests in the fact that the use of executive power to root out what it views as “threats” has become an effective norm for American policy makers. Many attribute the expansion of executive power to the Bush administration and the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Though the Bush administration is responsible for the expansion of presidential power, the precedent for such expansion of power has been generations in the making.

The Presidency in America has always been regarded as a powerful, influential position. Steadily, over successive generations, presidential power has grown far stronger, and in many ways is beginning to out weigh the power of Congress and the Courts. Another parallel trend is that both Congress and the Courts tend to largely conform and give a pass to executive power when it counts.

presidency2Since the Civil War, presidential powers have often grown more broadly defined, especially during times of war or internal crisis. However, this moniker of power has grown to a more permanent nature. Lincoln suspended habaes corpus rights during the course of the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson was known for suppressing and imprisoning critics of America’s involvement in World War One, and of course we know of Franklin Roosevelt and his expanded power during World War Two.

Since the end of World War Two, the power of the president has become increasingly stronger. The president became a somewhat strongman figure, a tough and fearless statesmen ready to command the troops against any and all enemies of the nation. Even though the United States was founded with the intent of Congress to having the power of the purse and to be the only body to have the authority to declare a state of war, these powers have slowly been ceded to the executive branch.

What has occurred is that Congress and the Courts still technically have the powers outlined in the constitution, but the Presidency has been able to expand definitions of executive power (with the help of Congress and the Courts themselves). In 2001, Congress passed the AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists) as well as the more famous USA PATRIOT Act which expanded the power of the executive branch of government in many ways. Yet, the precedent for these laws were long in the making.

Since 1996, “anti-terrorism” laws have been able to broadly define the powers of the president. 9/11 and the Bush presidency saw the president gain the personal authority to wage war without war being declared, regulate and track someone’s finances, tap someone’s internet and phone. The current Obama presidency has not subsided any of these powers, in fact powers have only been expanded with the broad use of drones against American citizens (which is unconstitutional).

Congress has largely ceded its power to this imperial cult of the presidency. Both Republicans and Democrats argue over many things, but when it comes to issues of executive power both parties have been mainly bipartisan on the issue. Democrats and Republicans voted to allow the growth of presidential power. From time to time, Congress will pretend to be outraged at overreach of executive power, yet somehow never vote against laws that allow that expansion of power.

Roman Emperor Tiberius was once told by the Roman Senate that they would pre-approve any law that Tiberiuspresidency1 wanted. Tiberius, then posed the question “Well, what if the emperor were to go mad?” Tiberius was later noted as saying that the members of the Roman Senate were “Sheep. Men most eager to be slaves.”

One idea one should take away from that statement is that power concentrated within a single branch (not necessarily person) of a state only leads to a corrupted and complicated system of power. Once the president is able to use its own personal authority to subvert long held constitutional law, then it opens a Pandora’s Box of abuse that has the potential to never be closed.

Obama may not be the ultimate example of the consequences of an imperial presidency, but what’s to stop the next president or the president after him from abusing authority to near dictatorial levels? Based on the way things are now, this would not be a far off suggestion. This is a very real danger.

Scandals have been abound in the news involving the Obama administration. Yet the real scandal that has been overlooked for years is the government that was built to be for and by the people is slowly becoming increasingly isolated to very central power structures, whose interests often conflict with that of the majority of Americans. The rise of the imperial presidency has been a long time coming, and it will get a lot worse before it gets better.

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Julian Drury

Column Writer
Student, Writer, resident of New Orleans, and Staunch Progressive. Helping to advance progressive causes, one post at a time.

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