The Imperial Presidency

I tend to skip over the Nixon/Watergate posts, but this is a really good explanation of the imperial presidency, and its limits (it’s a lot longer than the snippet below).

Okay, it’s time for me to finally write about the flipside of the problem of presidential weakness: the imperial presidency.

The problem is as follows.  Richard Neustadt said, back at the end of the Eisenhower administration, that the presidency was constitutionally a very limited (or “weak”) position.  Presidents are not absolute rulers of the government; they’re not, Neustadt explains, even absolute rulers of the executive branch.  They can only give orders to executive branch departments and agencies and hope to have those orders carried out in relatively rare and strictly limited situations — and even then, operating by giving orders turns out to be terribly costly for presidents who try.  (Note: this is also true of Members of Congress, governors, foreign prime ministers, party and interest group leaders, and others who presidents need things from, but it’s the exec branch that’s important here).

So Neustadt believed.  But Watergate and other episodes (especially but certainly not limited to the Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and W. Bush administrations) raise the question of: what if the president doesn’t take “no” for an answer?  What if the president finds a way around the bureaucracy?  What if he does what he wants done, essentially, by himself — or by people he hires who are loyal to the president, not to their agencies?  If the normal functioning of American politics is full of built-in checks and balances, what if presidents find a way to cheat that system, and to find ways to govern unchecked and unbalanced?

My answer is going to be: yes, presidents have tried to do that.  They generally do it through the “Presidential Branch” of government — the White House Office, and the larger Executive Office of the President.  They have, in limited ways and for short periods of time, apparently succeeded.  But in the cases for which we have information, what these presidents have found is that the system is stronger than they thought, and that going rogue has all sorts of dangers to the president.  On the whole, I am convinced that this kind of thing — that is, using the Presidential Branch to get things done that the president wants but that the normal processes of government stymie — doesn’t “work” in the sense of allowing a president to have unlimited dictatorial powers.  It doesn’t work at all; it backfires, and destroys those who would try it.  I’m an optimist, in other words, about this problem.  It is, nevertheless, even from my optimistic position, a real danger to be aware of.  And there’s no question that presidents do have the capacity to attempt it, and can create all sorts of damage in the process.

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