Obama and the End of the Imperial Presidency

The president's uphill battle to get congressional authorization for the use of force in Syria suggests the pendulum is swinging back from Bush-era excesses.
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Claudio Bresciani/Reuters

In 1973, Arthur Schlesinger wrote about the tendency in American history for the president to assume sweeping powers in times of war and crisis. The balance of power established by the Constitution gets upended; Congress and the courts take a back seat; and the executive makes decisions about life and death largely unchecked. He called this “the imperial presidency.” Today, with President Obama turning to Congress to endorse a military strike on Syria, the imperial presidency is beginning to wane.

It’s about time. The 1990s seemed to presage a return to a more balanced government, with Cold War defense spending slashed and “the peace dividend” contributing to a more balanced budget. But then 9/11 happened; America launched a war on terror; and the rest, as they say, is history.

The imperial presidency has some justification in times of acute peril. The immediate aftermath of 9/11 certainly justified some degree of unilateral executive action, as did in its way the financial crisis in the fall of 2008. And few would argue that at times of all-out war, with the country fully mobilized to fight a genuine threat such as Germany and Japan during World War II, ceding powers to the executive branch is imperative.

But it is equally vital to pare those back when they are no longer required -- though this is easier said than done. People do not cede power easily, and bureaucracies are far easier to construct than dismantle. The War on Terror has been conducted by an assertive executive branch and a compliant Congress and judiciary. Defenders will say that that’s a good thing, and a necessary one to keep the country safe. Either way, it tilts the balance toward the imperial presidency.

It’s a sign of just how far down the imperial path we’ve gone that Obama’s decision to look for congressional authorization before sending missiles into Syria was greeted with surprise and not a little contempt. The decision, apparently made over the weekend before Labor Day, caught even Obama’s aides unawares. And rather than hailing the decision as a sign of respect for the congressional war-making power specified by the Constitution, a fair number of commentators and even congressional representatives decried the move. Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, denounced the decision in blunt language: “His failure to act was a woeful abdication of the president’s powers as commander-in-chief and sent the entirely wrong signal to an increasingly dangerous world.”

The assumption that the president has both the authority and the obligation to strike against Syria because of its use of chemical weapons, and that this authority does not require consultation with Congress, would have astonished generations of Americans. Yes, presidential overreach is hardly a product of recent history, and no, we are better served by treating the Constitution as a “living document” that needs adaptation rather than slavishly cleaving to its every clause, as some devotees of original intent clearly do. However, the degree to which presidents have since the 1950s assumed the power to unilaterally decide to go to war is clearly a level of power unintended by the founders of the United States, undesired by many today, and unconducive to the very openness and transparency of debate and decision-making that forms the foundation of a functional deliberative democracy.

There is, in fact, a direct line between the issues raised by Edward Snowden’s revelations of government spying on domestic emails and communications and the near-decision to launch missiles against Syria. This isn’t about whether such policies are the right ones. They were not decided in the right way. That is, the way they were decided assumes not just competence and integrity on the part of the executive but that in most cases, the president is better able to make better decisions than a deliberative body such as Congress. You may think our current Congress is pitiful, but that is always a risk. The Constitution doesn’t say that “Congress shall have the power to declare war … but only if it’s a good Congress.”

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Zachary Karabell is Head of Global Strategy at Envestnet, a financial services firm, and author of The Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers that Rule Our World. More

At River Twice Research, Karabell analyzes economic and political trends. He is also a senior advisor for Business for Social Responsibility. Previously, he was executive vice president, head of marketing and chief economist at Fred Alger Management, a New York-based investment firm, and president of Fred Alger and Company, as well as portfolio manager of the China-U.S. Growth Fund, which won a five-star designation from Morningstar. He was also executive vice president of Alger's Spectra Funds, which launched the $30 million Spectra Green Fund based on the idea that profit and sustainability are linked. Educated at Columbia, Oxford, and Harvard, where he received his Ph.D., he is the author of several books, including Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It (2009), The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election, which won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Award, and Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence (2007), which examined the forgotten legacy of peace among the three faiths. In 2003, the World Economic Forum designated Karabell a "Global Leader for Tomorrow." He sits on the board of the World Policy Institute and the New America Foundation and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He is a regular commentator on national news programs, such as CNBC and CNN, and has written for The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Time, The Washington Post, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Foreign Affairs.

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