Our Imperial System: On How Not to Think About the American Presidency

Former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former president George W. Bush, former first lady Laura Bush, President Barack Obama, and first lady Michelle Obama during funeral services for U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help August 29, 2009 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Credit: Pool/Getty Images)

Our Imperial System: On How Not to Think About the American Presidency

The president might be imperial relative to Congress, but our corporate plutocracy and global military operations should not be able to escape the damning charge of "imperial" behavior.

"We are fortunate that, thanks to globalization, policy decisions in the US have been largely replaced by global market forces. National security aside, it hardly makes any difference who will be the next president. The world is governed by market forces." --Alan Greenspan, Federal Reserve Chair, 2007

The "imperial presidency" is back, or so we have been warned. The firestorm over President Obama's decision to use an executive order to break the congressional logjam over immigration reform has reignited protest from conservatives and some liberals over executive overreach.

"The problem with viewing the institutional balance of power between Congress and the President as the core of our political predicament is that it divorces those institutions from the larger context of politics and economics within which they operate."

Reaction to the President's move was as swift as it was predictable. Citing the plan that will allow up to four million undocumented immigrants legal work status, and shield an additional one million from deportation, Michael Steel, the spokesman for Republican House Speaker John Boehner, issued a statement condemning the president's action. "If 'Emperor Obama' ignores the American people and announces an amnesty plan that he himself has said over and over again exceeds his Constitutional authority," Steel said, "he will cement his legacy of lawlessness and ruin the chances for Congressional action on this issue - and many others." Ross Douthat recently ran with a slightly more nuanced version of the theme in an op-ed in the New York Times, characterizing Obama as "an elected Caesar, a Cheney for liberalism, a president unbound."

Emperor Obama? An elected Caesar? A lawless president? Obama unbound? What's going on here? This is a perennial issue in America political discourse, with historians and political scientists dutifully weighing in on the correct balance to maintain within our constitutional structure.

The critique of an excess of executive power received its most forceful articulation in historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr's classic 1973 book The Imperial Presidency . There Schlesinger--like so many scholars, often a cheerleader for presidential power when exercised by activist, liberal chief executives from FDR forward--expressed grave doubts about it in the context of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Having surveyed the history of executive excess in foreign affairs from the eighteenth century onward, Schlesinger found in the early 1970s an almost "messianic" view of American power, veiled in secrecy and dangerously threatening the constitutional balance of power.

While the threat of institutional imbalance affected all aspects of government, the tipping of power away from Congress toward the President was most troubling for Schlesinger and his many adherents. If our constitutional structure could be viewed as a see-saw with the President sitting on one end and Congress on the other, the see-saw was nearly crushed by the weight of an executive behemoth. Our thinking came to be dominated by this see-saw metaphor. Restoring constitutional balance was the remedy, a fix Schlesinger comfortably saw growing out of those very institutions and their ability to self-correct. The moral of the story? Bad guys get caught. The system works.

The problem with viewing the institutional balance of power between Congress and the President as the core of our political predicament is that it divorces those institutions from the larger context of politics and economics within which they operate. There is a shared consensus between the two political parties about the ends of US economic and military power, while tactical differences over means capture almost all the media attention. Thus we have the spectacle of a second term President Obama announcing his bipartisan market-based climate policies while reassuring us that being caretakers of the future involves "no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth." And a battle ensues over which incremental market-based policies should be enacted. Or the President reaffirms his allegiance to the idea of American exceptionalism, reminding us that "the United States remains the one indispensable nation... I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being."

To be sure, presidential unilateralism is a concern within our constitutional system. Ignoring it outright would be foolish; accountability matters. But what Republican member of the House and Senate, what Republican running for president, would seriously take issue with the President's formulations above if appealing to a national audience? And it's an even more vexing question for Democrats who might want to see Hillary Clinton elected in 2016, or progressives who favor Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren . Looking at institutions apart from the deeper structure of power allows Schlesinger and other critics of the "imperial presidency" to view the dangers of power as procedural. The office is seen as imperial, without having to consider that the substantive policies themselves might be imperial. The president might be imperial relative to Congress, but our corporate plutocracy and global military operations escape the damning "imperial" charge. Indeed, if we follow the logic of Alan Greenspan above, the ideology and policy priorities of neoliberalism have eclipsed most of what passes for party conflict in America.

Fixation on defining our political "problem" as an institutional imbalance of power weighted too far toward the White House misses the far more unsettling dilemma. Regardless of party, personality, management style or partisan control of Capitol Hill, all presidents seek the same deeper structural ends concerning the two central policy goals of the modern state: the pursuit of both profit-driven economic growth and national security based on US hegemony. The modern presidency is a creature of FDR's long tenure and the subsequent rise of what has been called the warfare-welfare state. The soaring public expectations undergirding the modern chief executive have rested on these twin pillars of endless economic growth (rising GDP--always more production and consumption tomorrow than today) and national security (always tougher with each iteration of the enemy, be they the Soviets or ISIS). Each goal is bipartisan and defined in ways that are not sustainable in light of twenty-first century challenges to conventional assumptions. Physics and chemistry simply do not care who chairs the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources--neither party is willing to challenge corporate and financial interests fundamentally enough, and quickly enough, to adequately address climate change. Drone attacks on civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen will not make the nation any more secure, whether or not the President confers with Congress before ordering their launch.

If we continue to think about the office of the presidency as a metaphorical see-saw--if historians and political scientists continue to frame the central issue as a debate over the proper balance between the executive and legislative branches--then the presidency will be unsustainable in the face of today's deeper dangers. The US and the larger world face a set of interrelated crises, including a seemingly endless commitment to a "war against terror" and a prolonged economic slump accompanied by widespread material hardship and deepening class inequality. And global climate change, brought about by accelerating levels of carbon dioxide and methane, threatens life on Earth as we know it. Focus solely on the see-saw of power and the entire democratic playground may well go up in the flames of spectacle, charade and disillusionment. But if we have the courage to rethink and redefine the political and economic assumptions upon which the modern presidency was erected, then the office may yet be sustainable, its core elements of popular leadership truly shorn of their deeper imperial trappings.

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