Types of Presidential Power

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The 'Imperial Presidency' Thesis

It could be suggested that in the 1960's, the US Presidency was out of control and the Presidency had exceeded its constitutional limits - presidents had grown so powerful they were acting like emperors, particularly in foreign policy. 

In the 1930s, the President of the United States had few staff. However, FDR's leadership during the Great Depression and World War II changed the presidency.

The President now has a large executive staff who are most often crowded in the West or in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. 

Arguably this increase in power has meant that congress has become virtually powerless to prevent the will of presidents. 

Congress plays little role in many conflicts e.g. Korean War, Lebanon (1958), Tonkin Gulf Resolution (1964).

However, Nixon's resignation suggests that the power of congress was not entirely irrelevant, as the threat of impeachment was enough to force his hand. 

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The 'Imperiled Presidency'

The theory of the Imperiled Presidency was created by former Gerald Ford in contrast to Schlesinger's theory of the Imperial Presidency. The theory suggests that rather than being too powerful, the President does not have enough power to be effective.

The growth in the size of the bureaucracy surrounding the President since the New Deal of the 1930s has made the presidency more difficult to control. Regarding domestic policy, a principal weakness in the presidency is the inability of the White House to maintain control over the large federal bureaucracy. 

Congress reasserted its its power against that of the president through:

  • The Case Act (1972) maintained that the president had to inform congress of any executive agreements within 60 days of their signing. 
  • The War Powers Act (1973) allowed the President to commit US troops to battle for 60 days without consent from congress. 

While the acts did not have their intended long term effect, both Ford and Carter found their control over foreign policy was severely limited. 

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The Post-Imperial Presidency

The post-imperial presidency refers to a theory that suggests that presidents still maintained significant levels of power over government. 

Ronald Reagan in particular achieved a number of feats, both home and abroad: legislative reforms, a reduction in the stigma surrounding working class republicans, and an advancement of the US on the world stage. 

Bill Clinton also had a significant level of success, particualrly regarding the economy. 

Both presidents served two terms, had exceptionally high approval ratings, and are still regarded today as popular. 

However, while these examples show that the presidents power is still relatively high, as is common with most presidents, terms are plagued by failures as well: Clinton failed to push through defining health care policies, while Reagan didn't manage to slim down federal government to the extent he wanted. 

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The Bifurcated Presidency

However, it could also be argued that rather than being dominated solely by congress, or purely attempting to dominate all sectors of government, presidents are less limited in the way they conduct foreign affairs. This is therefore known as the 'two-presidents' theory. 

For example, G.W.B following 9/11 could be regarded as having far more power than the constitution permitted in the area of foreign affairs. The patriot act in particular took away civil liberties, while the war on terror essentially launched an attack on the Middle East without the expressed consent of congress. 

One of the most notorious examples involved the torture of prisoners, a power the administration claimed in the face of law and international agreements to the contrary. “The assertion in the various legal memoranda that the President can order the torture of prisoners despite statutes and treaties forbidding it was another reach for presidential hegemony,” wrote Anthony Lewis in the New York Review of Books. “The basic premise of the American constitutional system is that those who hold power are subject to the law…Bush’s lawyers seem ready to substitute something like the divine right of kings.”

Furthermore, during his first term policy initiatives such as 'no child left behind' felt little resistance; Bush did not have to use the house veto once in his first term. 

However, a series of failures throughout his second term indicate that his power was not as unconstrained as it appeared. In particular, the ballooning federal budget deficit after $1.6tn in tax cuts, combined with the failure of the war on terror, led to a severe drop in his popularity, and his power. This was heightened by the lame duck presidency that emerged following the 2006 midterms. 

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