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.

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.”

The point of the American system, at least in theory, is that too many factors play into key societal decisions to make it easy for individuals and institutions invested with great power to exercise that power lightly. That is more true than ever for the United States today.

In pure military terms, the United States can do whatever it wants to whomever it wants, and precious few other countries can do a thing about it. As Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate, of course, overwhelming military power only gets you so far, unless you are willing to indiscriminately kill civilians and then govern the country you’ve destroyed. And even then, the risks of blowback and failure are large.

But in terms of firing missiles or deploying commandos or using drones or any number of military measures, the president can literally say go and it is done. Yes, he needs the consensus of his team, but the power is there. And once the missiles are flying, there is no turning back.

That type of power is almost impossible to manage well. The temptation to use it is great. We know that because we use it frequently. China, also powerful in its way, does not. Russia, still well-armed, does not. France did dispatch troops to Mali recently, but even with its nuclear arsenal and not inconsiderable military, force is not a primary option. Those domestic systems are not ones most of us would trade for, yet it bears remembering that they are much less tempted to use force to resolve intractable international issues, including dire human rights abuses.

There is one more reason to celebrate the waning of the imperial presidency. For too long, the United States has been locked into a role as the sole guardian of global order. Many Americans want to retain that, but in truth, we play that role selectively and erratically. Obama himself noted the contradictions in an interview with The New Republic and asked how any president could weigh the relative merits of intervening in Syria versus intervening in Congo. The very expectation that the United States must do something throughout the world feeds the domestic expansion of presidential powers. But while those powers grow, the ability and willingness of Americans to act as the global policeman and enforcer is erratic at best. That makes for the worst of possible worlds: an overweening domestic executive and an ineffectual global cop.

The shifts afoot are partly structural. Without a clear and present danger, it’s natural that the pendulum begins to move away from the executive branch and toward other centers of influence. But Obama in recent months has been quietly accelerating the shift rather than fighting it. That may prove to be one of his greatest legacies, even though the diminution of presidential power is not the kind of thing that makes for compelling historical narrative. It is, however, exactly the sort of thing that makes for a compelling democracy, and I’d rather live in that than read books years hence about how the imperial presidency drove the country in precisely the wrong direction.

This article originally appeared on Reuters.com, a partner site.