Research studies

“Understanding the U.S “Imperial Presidency

Abdelkader Filali : Ph.D. Politics/Security Ottawa University
 Democratic Arab Center 
In 1973 Arthur Schlesinger a historian characterized Richard Nixon’s administration as an “Imperial Presidency”. This term was also incorporated with later administrations. Political scientists and constitutionalists argue about the nature of Imperial Presidency. Is the formal role of the president changed drastically such that the president that we have now is fundamentally different from what is outlined in the constitution? The US presidency has developed and changed over the time. The US presidents played different roles in different perspectives from 1800s-1930 than today’s. That is why the term Imperial Presidency is coined with the post New Deal era up until now. From this framework and due to goals of modern government, the constitutional role of the president has to change. This is what the Development Presidency theorists say as Richard A. Watson and Norman C. Thomas in their “The Politics of the Presidency” (1988) argued. They suggested that the concept of the presidency changed rapidly. On the other hand, there is another group of theorists -who analyse the presidency from an Energetic Executive- contend that Imperial Presidency was always there since George Washington issued on his own authority a proclamation of neutrality regarding the war between France and England in 1793(Nelson). Even though a lot of changes happened, the formal characteristics of the president remain the same. The presidency has always been modern; the President’s formal powers connects him to the legislative process, and therefore it isn’t surprising if the President plays a role as “legislative agenda setter” and that it was just created by the constitution. This notion of Imperial Presidency is in the heart of the Energetic Executive theory, which I believe provided us with the most accurate description of how president unitary decisions has functioned both historically since 1789, and today. Crenson and Ginsberg (2007) contended that nothing changed since President Polk war against Mexico and the annexation of California, New Mexico along with Texas.
If one wishes to understand the latest modes of governance in the executive and to the Trump era, he or she has simply to go back on a journey of how imperial presidency was always part of the dynamic white house. We see the shift from notions of freedom, democracy and progress to notions of race. This is what makes this era problematic. In order to defend this position this paper will engage in an argument of three parts: the first part offers a conceptualization of the presidential institution and demonstrates how Developmental Presidency exhibits an understanding of the structures that have governed American lives from New Deal Era, and govern them still today. The second part will examine how through Energetic Executive, we can better comprehend some of the causes of why presidents reacted and still react in a way which seems to be somehow, dictatorial, and authoritarian. Lastly, through an understanding of Energetic Executive theory and an application in the current context, I ask why executive power cannot be constrained. This is because it is meant to deal with the unexpected and the unforeseen that does not have to do with rules, and because executive power is not formally constrained by law.

The Concept of Imperial Presidency  

      According to Douglass North (1990, 3) “institutions are the rules of the game in a society…the constraints that shape human interaction.” When institutions create stable structures, they reduce doubt and uncertainty. One of the common features of the stability of institutions is that they evolve and change, but not in a disconnected or discontinuous trend (Bowman, Woods &Milton.2007). External actors have enormously participated in the institutionalization of the imperial presidency. For instance, consider the notion of “Raison d’Etat” a Machiavellian doctrine  which has to deal with the strategic national security threats. The US president  could and can challenge the constitutional rituals and unilaterally impose his own version of governing- the case of Reagan invading Grenada in 1982 twenty four hours after the hostage situation in Beirut is a good example of this. So the president becomes a public leader, party leader and as a legislating leader that is totally unprecedented. Clinton Rossiter defines the presidency as a term beyond any standing reproach to the dictionaries which state that the executive power is undemocratic. But on the contrary, he adds, it is a legitimate response to a dream of a giant democracy more than any other institution. Rossiter glorifies the presidency and those who shaped it- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S Truman-.

The “Imperial Presidency” and the  Developmental Presidency Theory

     In a provoking article in December 1966 Aaron Wildavsky declared that the United States has one President and two presidencies; one is specialized with internal and domestic affairs, the second one is focused on defense and foreign policy. This dual behavioral attitude towards what is internal and external led Wildavsky to demonstrate basing his arguments on a chronological order of events since Franklin Roosevelt till John Kennedy where all the presidents actively succeeded in gaining the necessary support for their foreign policy field (Walles. 1991). George Washington refused to send documents or even to request support from the House of Representatives in relation to the Jay Treaty. This was a first claim of what has become known as “The Executive Privilege” in 1958. Deputy Attorney- General William Rogers in 1971 defended the US  President to withhold information and called it “ uncontrolled discretion” (Walles. 1991).    The national government should take the leading role in implementing solutions, and leading initiatives for an interdependent world (Watson& Thomas. 1988). The era between 1950s and 1960s was an era of “Heroic Presidency”. In the early seventies, the term “Imperial Presidency” was coined by Arthur Schlesinger (1973). His study gathered both an insight of Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. His discovery mainly touched the executive powers in foreign policy. The trend of the development presidency was highly pronounced after World War II, but particularly, during Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon administration’s (Schlesinger.1973). The presidency reached its high climax when Nixon employed his unilaterally powers this time in the domestic sphere by dealing with those who opposed him, and by impounding funds adopted by the congress. He dismantled the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) without any authorization from congress (Watson& Thomas. 1988).  Schlesinger argued that the Nixon presidency was not only “imperial” but also, “plebiscitary” this concept was used by Napoleon of France and Charles de Gaulle who personified their presidency and blocked any resistance or even opposition to their decisions which were considered to be undemocratic (Schlesinger.1973).

In 1975, Senator Walter F. Mondale in his book “The accountability of Power: Toward a Responsible Presidency” blamed the imperial presidency for what he called “a whole sale decline in Americans’ belief in the viability and honesty of their government institutions” American citizens, intellectuals, writers appreciated the immense powers of the presidency which was used for good common goals( Ameliorating domestic social and economic problems and winning World War II) and could be also used for purposes of dictatorial, and imperial in nature (waging a futile, costly conflicts in Southeast Asia and launching an all- out attack on political enemies) (Watson& Thomas. 1988).

      Three years after Mondale’s book in 1978, Fred Greenstein who is a Professor of Politics Emeritus at Princeton University noticed that the US presidency is rapidly shifting into an era of Post- Imperial Presidency within which the powers of the president were limited due to the impact of congress and media.  Another historian by the name of Theodore J. Lowi argued that the US presidency reached its maturity under Reagan (Watson& Thomas. 1988).  Malcolm Walles in his book Understanding the US Presidency 1991 showed that while the founding fathers of the constitutions did not emphasize on a specific job description of what is domestic and what is diplomatic in terms of treaties and defense, because Walles adds, they were aware of the secrecy and speed of such decisions which were not associated with the legislative brunch. The practice of the executive office has developed and was accorded freer hand in dealing with such novelties in the international arena (Walles. 1991).

     When the Great Depression was hitting the United States very hard in 1929, and World War II was ignited in Europe in 1939, the U.S. public was looking and expecting a strong leadership. They found the leadership traits in Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR single-handedly created the imperial presidency. He implemented   the New Deal programs, which greatly gave powers and reputation to the presidency by establishing a large federal bureaucracy which has given the president all the necessary powers to preside.   In the foreign policy the United States to support the Allies during WWII. The subsequent Cold War further involved the United States modern presidency in international global affairs. The great paradox of the modern American presidency is that even with humiliations in many instances of the US Presidents and low rates of support, the institution of the presidency is always triumphant “While presidents fail, the institution flourishes” (Crenson& Ginsberg. 2007). Even Bush suffered an embarrassing electoral rebuff in the 2006 for Congress control, he continued to command. The Republican Presidential nominee Warren Harding (1921) -against Wilson- pledged to use the “executive autocracy” to achieve a substantial enhancement of the president’ budgetary power (Crenson& Ginsberg. 2007).  Under modern law, actual content of law changes with the president and doesn’t require legislative change.

The “Imperial Presidency” and the  Energetic Executive  Theory

      What is actually created by the constitution is a “Constitutional Presidency”. Article 1 (deals with congress), Article 2 (deals with President). If comparing to article 1, there is a lack of detail on the President. Article 1says that legislative power is granted to congress (followed by pages of what they can do/cannot do). On the other hand, Article 2 reaffirms that the executive power shall be vested in a president of the execs, but not much detail. They did not feel any need to qualify this power. Norman Thomas from University of Cincinnati edited the work of “The Presidency in Contemporary Context” and underlined very firmly that it should not be forgotten that the modern presidency is simply the product of a continuous struggle of power which was invented at the heart of the original constitution (Thomas. 1975). To reinforce his suggestion, Norman Thomas uses the example of Andrew Jackson reactions to various unsuccessful demands and oppositions from the Whig to cut back the veto power when in 1860 demonstrated by vetoing 15 of 21 measures against the congress.

Policy authority in regards to congress is specific, but to the president it is open ended. On one hand, we have legislative process, there is less need to constrain presidency because he is subordinate to congress. Efficiency is a virtue built into legislative branch and not executive branch. A lot of governing cannot be reduced to creating a rule or enforcing a rule. This may be most important but enforcing laws is in no way an easier automatic process. Enforcing laws, is political. If it was simple, president should be elected. Why executive power cannot be constrained because it is meant to deal with unexpected and unforeseen that does not have to do with rules. Executive power is not formally constrained by law, but Congress can control the president (e.g up to impeaching him). Elections are also constraints on executive power. Across to some scholars, the original constitution was meant to create a president that was detached from politics. Because of this, the president was supposed to be apolitical. Not entirely divorced from politics, but the way that chief justice and Supreme Court are. The original college does not make president a representative of the nation. The Electoral College means voters elect electors and electors chose who they want for who they want for president. They don’t have to give vote for who they pledge (in reality this isn’t a problem though). They are supposed to decide on their own who to select for president.

The Presidency Today

      The role of president as a national leader and that president is meant to mobilize public opinion. President should have a legislative agenda and should motivate people to vote in his view. Presidents didn’t do any of that up to the 1930s. President has enormous power to shape policy and direct it especially in domestic policy. Consider what president Obama doing these days; he is marketing on his jobs proposal (for electoral purposes). He is going around the country attempting to mobilize public opinion.

Formally, president is the boss. That energy is concentrated in one individual because legislative system is so constrained. Discretion has been part of presidential power from the very beginning. Discretion is always involved in enforcement of law. It would be impossible to enforce the law all the time. This applies at the presidential level as well. Significance of this has changed simply not enough money to enforce the law. So presidents set priority how to enforce laws and set an agenda.

Scholars have found that presidents changed overtime, but in fact, presidents have gone contrary to the law from the very beginning. Since 19th century (pre modern era) is even more severe: think about Civil War as an example which would seem as entirely dictatorial where Prerogative power is originated from. Presidential prerogative is about making a decision to violate the law for national interest. Thomas Jefferson doubled the size of the United States, but he said, “The law is not everything” he had to do it. If it was in national interest, why should they hold out legality over national interest? If he didn’t expand territory, the nation would be destroyed. Abraham Lincoln exercised power of a constitutional dictator during Civil War. People were imprisoned without access to lawyers, without due cause etc…* This was mostly in few states, not just in the south. People were causing a ruckus and saying things he didn’t like they were arrested. In various actions, he spent money he shouldn’t have. Truman controlled steel mills to get people back to work. It is impossible to follow congress always. Instruments of how President can go beyond the law in using Executive orders which were ordered by the president that is not explicitly mentioned by law. These instances have been used to achieve policy objectives : Internment of the Japanese, seizures of private facilities during WW2 and Korean War.  Land-lease program when Americans give ships and material to WW2, president just did it, it is significant as it tied them into entanglement into a war they wanted to avoid. Executive orders often relate to foreign affairs (security directives). Good way to show how much nature of policy can change depending on the president. Some presidents change it one way, others another way. George Bush First: limited abortion funding outside of the country, Clinton comes and changes that, George bush comes back changes it back, Obama comes and says he doesn’t want to pollicise the issue and changes it (Healy.2005).

       One major aspect of developmental theory is that what really transformed residency is that president is setting agenda. This is the view of some scholars. Problem is this isn’t exactly true. We can see the basis for this in the constitution. President has duty to present information and

recommendations to Congress. Now in the end Congress doesn’t have to accept presidential recommendations. President’s agendas were not as ambitious in the 20th century but they still played role similar in form to what we see today. We see extension of presidential leadership in political grounds. Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, start to make appeals to general public to get goals achieved in their agenda. This has existed for a long time. Roosevelt was trying to get national government to have control over railroads and it was being stalled in the senate, so he went around on a tour. They called this plebiscite (trying to get people to mobilize Congress). Roosevelt was taking advantage of technological advantages to promote his views and this was different, but not alien to the constitution. Attempt to mobilize public opinion was new but was an outgrowth in president’s mandated role.

Regarding the budgetary Process, Congress in 19th century controlled every nickel and dime. Over the 20th century (1920s…) President increases his power to craft budget (bureau of budget in 1921, and then becomes office of the budget in 1970s) (Crenson& Ginsberg. 2007).   But this does not involve a formal shift in president’s power. They just didn’t have budgetary systems in 19th century, but if you are spending billions, you need a coordinating function. But this does not give a new constitutional authority to the president. Congress can reject president’s budget proposal. In fact, they have a bureau for budgets. So there wasn’t a shift. No one voted for Obama’s budget in April.

      Presidents succeed more when they control the other party in Congress. But they still succeed, even when the other party is in power. Part of the problem, is that parties aren’t so important. It is not which party controls representatives in Senate and House. If enough of them are conservative enough, they will vote for president’s agenda. Clinton, 83% of his proposals get accepted in first 2 year, 40% in next 6 years.

The relationship between the president and the congress is taking place in the framework of the constitution of separation of powers. The purpose is to ensure conflict while requiring cooperation (Crenson& Ginsberg. 2007).   The intention of the founding fathers was to prevent tyranny by establishing balance between executive and legislative powers. Strong presidents have been in the office during times of external threats (1801-1809), social change (1829-1836), territorial expansion (1845-1849), and civil war (1861-1865) (Crenson& Ginsberg. 2007).   Under the presidency of very influential presidents such as the two Roosevelts, Wilson, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, the US presidency became the centralizing force in the American politics. The United States is entering its third century where the Presidency will be characterized by its fragility guaranteed by a marble  constitution.


 Bresiger, G. ( 2008, June).  The Bricker Amendment: A Battle against the Imperial Presidency. The Future of Freedom Foundation. Retrieved  from http://

Bowman, Woods &Milton (2007). The Institutionalization of the Executive branch.  Auston Texas.

Crenson, M. & Ginsberg, B. (2007). Presidential power: unchecked and unbalanced. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Healy, G. ( 2005, March). The Imperial Presidency and the War on Terror. CATO Police Report. 28(2).

Healy, G. ( 2000).  Arrogance of Power Reborn: The Imperial Presidency and Foreign Policy in the Clinton Years. Policy Analysis .28(389).

  1. Schlesinger, A. (1973). The Imperial Presidency. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Thomas, N.  (Ed.). (1975). The presidency in contemporary context. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.

Walles, M. (1991). Understanding the US presidency. New York: Phillip Allan.

Watson, R. & Thomas, N. (1988). The politics of the presidency. Washington D.C.: Congressional Quartely Inc.

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